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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Self-less Gene: Mentalism, Memetics, and Biobehavioral Psychology

How do individuals make decisions, and why do they make the decisions they do? The metaphorical conventions of common language are generally thought of as suitable to describe behavior, and to provide the rules whereby we can navigate our worlds. According to common sense, decision making follows symbolic rules that manipulate discrete mental objects or mental faculties. The actual molecular or neural processes that are responsible for behavior are generally ignored, since their logic is generally isomorphic to these larger scale symbolic rules. Thus on large and small scales, the human mind is a simple information processor, and like a computer program follows the same logical rules irrespective of the perspective you take. Recently, evolutionary psychology has added a nativistic element to this basic model. Thus natural selection shapes our sensitivity to certain information, and our behavior is subtly guided towards ends that maximize our individual genetic ‘fittedness’.

The well-established belief that decision-making is entirely dependent upon the manipulation of symbolic mental objects that may or may not be influenced by inborn tendencies is integral to philosophical beliefs that permeate both common sense and academic views of behavior. It also has entailed philosophical problems that have consumed the attention of thoughtful and thought-less people since the beginning of recorded history. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that arguments regarding materialism, moral justification, virtue, etc. basically derive from implicit and incorrect assumptions as to how elementary decision making is made. I will begin with an analysis of the logic of so called mentalistic and memetic models of decision making, and the logical and methodological rules that support them. In addition to these ‘molar’ explanations, ‘molecular’ or bio-behavioral explanations for decision making will be provided. These explanations will be demonstrated to detail the elemental processes that instigate and sustain behavior. These processes explain behavior with greater economy and strong empirical rigor, and ironically justify as reasonable and correct the many human values that are normally attributed to unreasoning sentiment.

Mentalism: The Rule of Common Sense

Common sense, or the rules of behavior we commonly internalize through language, attributes behavior to the conscious or nonconscious manipulation of ordinary events. A multitude of stimuli impinge upon our senses, and are encoded in our minds as physical objects that embody a four dimensional space. Thus we compose a gallery of physical and abstract objects such as cars and houses, time and distance that make up our mental space. We cognitively manipulate these ideas, and this information feeds forward and results in overt behavior. The sensory information from overt behavior then feeds back to the mind, which acts again according to the new information, and the mind-behavior loop continues on. However, common sense does not tell us how we behave, or why our behavior does not match what our common sense tells us we should do. Thus we all know that success follows hard work, perseverance, and the ability to follow reason, but often reason is not enough. So we hypothesize obscure mental processes or ‘faculties’ such as courage, willpower, feeling, virtue, etc. to fill in the explanatory gaps in our understanding and prediction of behavior. These faculties may be aroused and summoned, controlled and channeled through an appeal to reason. Motivational speeches, pop psychology books, and inspirational creeds all claim to change behavior through such reasonable appeals to the summoning and reordering of these mental events. Thus changing behavior is just a matter of summoning courage, building willpower, deciding to forgive, expressing love, etc.

Because mental goods are understood as discrete and disembodied mental or physical events, happiness is thus defined as attaining those goods, and not through the process that they are attained. Thus, humans seek a steady or ‘homeostatic’ state that represents ‘having it all’. Of course, humans never do ‘have it all’, and thus our behavior is composed of a series of fits and starts between needing and having.

Mentalistic versus Memetic Thinking

The common sense attribution of behavior to the ordering of mental events, or mentalism, has been traditionally bound with the assumption that our thoughts are ordered according to the diverse agendas of culture. Thus in some cultures monogamy and communal sharing may be important, and in other cultures polygamy and private property may be valued. Value in another words is entirely malleable, and there are for the most part few if any standards whereby cultural values may be judged.

In recent years, this belief has been challenged by the discovery of many behavioral traits or tendencies in humans that occur across cultures, and persist often in spite of cultural proscriptions. These tendencies are not learned, but innate, and are the products of processes of natural selection that have operated over millions of years. These tendencies form the subject matter of evolutionary psychology. The fundamental theorem upon which evolutionary psychology is based is "that behavior is in large part inherited and that every organism acts (consciously or not) to enhance its inclusive fitness – to increase the frequency and distribution of its selfish genes in future generations." (Miele, 1996) Men and women have different biological agendas that result in behavioral tendencies towards promiscuity, competitiveness, nurturing, etc. The values that we conceive in language are in turn ultimately derived from innate predispositions to interpret and respond to information in certain ways. Although values and the behavior they engender are ultimately a function of neural processes, the relative inaccessibility of these processes to observation and their sheer complexity forces a reliance on molar decision making processes that are denoted by a metaphorical language. This language borrows metaphors from biology, and in particular genetic and disease metaphors. According to this ‘memetic’ language, ideas or memes occur and are fashioned in ways not dissimilar from how a virus replicates and spreads, and are selected, mutate, and are discarded because of selectionist processes that form an analogue to Darwinian natural selection. Coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins (1976), memes are a different type of replicator that exists in minds.

Like their mentalistic counterpart of an idea, a meme is chosen according to a molar selectionistic principle, but is guided instead by nativistic (i.e. inborn) tendencies that have been chosen over the eons by natural selection. In other words, memetics is nothing more than mentalism couched in the metaphors of biology, but with a provision for hereditary constraints on how behavior may be exhibited. Memetics adds to mentalism by postulating a nativistic or evolutionary as well as cultural origin for behavior. However, it shares with mentalism the idea that behavior occurs because of the manipulation of disembodied intellectual objects, and the goal of behavior is in acquiring the intellectual and physical artifacts that once possessed promote happiness, and in the long view, provide biological fittedness.

Mentalistic and memetic descriptions of behavior involve metaphorical languages that are built on similar philosophical assumptions. These are that behavior is goal directed (homeostatic), disembodied (somatic or emotional influences are relatively unimportant or extraneous determinants of behavior), and molar (discrete mental objects or faculties motivate). Memetics of course adds a distinctive metaphorical language based on disease and genetic metaphors, and recognizes the constraining influence of nativistic or inborn tendencies that have been selected by evolution. However, a problem that arises is that a belief in these assumptions implicitly undermines the perceived usefulness of the experimental methods that may be used to disprove them. Just as the belief that the sun rotated the earth made it seem to be a fruitless affair to turn a telescope to the skies, so too do memetic and mentalistic belief systems preclude the use of the procedures that may effectively prove them ungrounded, and thus groundless.
Mentalism and memetic explanations are products of the ways in which we commonly question our own behavior, but those explanations in turn determine the ways that we will frame those questions, and in turn the questions themselves. This forms a vicious circle that excludes entire classes of questions from consideration. Thus, because behavior is disembodied, there is no need to ask how behavior may be anchored to neural or somatic events that could influence or bias decision-making. Secondly, because discrete large scale or molar events determine behavior, a general determinant for behavior becomes equivalent in predictive power to specific determinants of behavior. Therefore there is little or no need to delineate the specific causes that drive individual behavior. An understanding of the limitations of mentalistic or memetic thinking thus must derive from an understanding of the limitations and possibilities of the methods that guide and frame our questions.

Mentalism, Memetics, and Method

The best way to find out how your mind works is to map your overt (walking, talking) and covert (perceptions, emotions) behavior to actual neural processes, or failing in that to discover indirect ways that can give you some general knowledge of those same neural processes. A second approach is to hypothesize intervening mental forces or faculties that create or modulate behavior. These faculties may act as placeholders or ciphers until the true intervening processes are discovered, but more often than not are treated as real rather than metaphorical events. Thus, ego strength, self-actualization, psychic energy etc. can become more than metaphors for processes we don’t know about or can scarcely describe, and become real entities. Moreover, the creation of inferred processes can become unrestrained if they are not validated by a reference to the empirical facts of behavior. For mentalistic or memetic thinking this is commonly the case. Mentalistic or memetic interactions are not claimed to map with any precision to the neuro-psychological (arousal, alertness) or covert (muscular tension, relaxation) processes that actually produce and influence overt behavior. Because they are not even loosely constrained by or tied to actual neural or somatic processes, the variables or variable weights of each metaphorical element in an argument may be changed to fit the problem. Hence if Johnny does not practice piano despite the threats of a parent or the prospect of a piano competition, then the explanation of his behavior is saved by the introduction of a laziness variable that provides a post hoc explanation of his behavior. Likewise, if Johnny is a fervent Christian, a memetic explanation would attribute his behavior to the ‘infectiousness’ or ‘fittedness’ of the set of ideas or memes that constitute his thoughts. This trend takes its most complex iteration in modern cognitive theories that attempt to map the computational basis of thought. The development of such ‘neural-net’ models is "constrained by the knowledge of the behavioral output of the organism and by logico-mathematical considerations, and not by direct information about the internal processes and structures mediating that output." "Internal events are merely inferred from their external behavioral effects…. which is akin to attempting to understand the internal workings of a computer by looking only at its outputs and inputs." Moreover, "inferred internal events that are solely the product of inferences from behavior invite circular reasoning. That is, behavioral observations provide the basis for the inferences, but then the validity of the inferences is judged by their consistency with the behavior that led to the inferences in the first place." (Donahoe, 1997)
In addition to the pitfall of relying on inferred processes that are not grounded to neural or behavioral events, the determination of generalized sets of causes and effects is commonly held as an adequate substitute for rather than a complement to the isolation of specific agents of cause and effect. Although mentalistic and memetic interactions are not mapped to the actual processes that instantiate behavior, a common perception held by layman and academic alike is that the averaged behavior of groups of people provides for a more adequately controlled and more generalizable substitute for individual data that map to actual processes. In this way, at least the general determinants of behavior may be isolated, even though those determinants are largely inferred. Indeed, the larger the population sample, the more reliable the prediction. Thus, it would be a very reliable prediction to say that Americans would weather an economic downturn because of their emotional resilience and courage, or that a people may go communist because they have been infected with the ideas or memes of Marxism.

The comparison of averaged groups of responses of similar subjects under different conditions represents a ‘between group’ experimental design. Between group designs are predominantly employed by social and experimental psychologists to trace the behavioral significance of stimulus or environmental conditions that cannot be easily traced through their influence on individual subjects. For example, crime rates may be correlated between separate groups of people who differ because of race, gender, age, socio-economic status etc., or with groups that embody different combinations of traits. The cross correlation or ‘factor-analysis’ of sets of variables between groups of subjects often includes as measurable variables the inferred mind states of individuals. Thus reports of self-esteem, personal control, or emotional well being (e.g. stress, ‘flow’) are often cross-correlated with work and leisure conditions, family and social structure, etc. As compared to within group designs that trace causes and effects among individual subjects, between group designs aggregate the behavior of groups of individuals, and ultimately blur the distinction between cause and effect (Sidman, 1960). Moreover, with the unrestrained employment of inferred processes as the dependent or independent measures in such designs, the distinction between cause and effect may be even further confounded. Thus, between group designs can only at discover general truths at best, obscure the truth at worst, and cannot derive the specific truths that may only come from the analysis of individual behavior.

In the physical and biological sciences, between group studies generally complement and inform ‘within group’ experiments that isolate the causes and effects of individual variables in individual subjects. Thus the finding that populations of individuals that exercise live longer than populations that do not informs research in fields such as exercise physiology, cardiology, endocrinology, etc. that trace how exercise modifies the human body. However, in the social sciences, this is generally not the case. Whether the causes of the behavior of individual groups are discussed and compared as conceptual objects (e.g. intrinsic motivation, self esteem, etc.) or are formally contrasted through statistical means, rarely if ever are these findings used to inform research that traces individual behavioral or neural processes across time. Indeed, an historical antipathy has existed between advocates of these respective historical designs. This has resulted in an unproductive tendency among those camps that champion within group (behaviorism) and between group (social and experimental psychology) designs to ignore the experimental literature of each other (Krantz, 1971).
The general acceptance of the notion that behavior is caused by discrete and disembodied conceptual objects has been accompanied by near exclusive reliance on experimental methodologies that can only confirm that notion. The copious journalistic literature of psychology reveals an endless train of articles that reshuffle inferred causal variables in statistical or logical matrices of ever evolving complexity, but without ever questioning the mentalistic philosophy that is at their root. And so the question remains, is that philosophy correct from the standpoint of how the human mind actually works? The short answer is no.


Ultimately, a true science of behavior is no more capable of perfectly predicting behavior any more than the science of biology can tell us when we may catch the flu. But prediction is not the point. Rather, a science of behavior provides explanations, simple and uniform metaphorical schemes that we use to understand our world. And it is from this basic metaphorical language that simple procedures may be developed that can allow for greater self control and provide general insight and guidance into how we construct and choose our values. However, even in its latest incarnation as evolutionary psychology, motivational psychology still relies on root explanations for behavior that are scarcely removed from the mentalistic mechanisms that informed both common and wise men since civilization began. However, if these root explanations are demonstrated to be false, then all that we know of psychology must be reinterpreted from an entirely new perspective.

In psychology, the sheer complexity and obtuseness of the human mind has always been used to justify the predominant use of between group methodologies and the postulation of inferred mental processes. Within group designs were simply not capable of describing how information is actually processed in the brain, or of providing simple metaphorical explanations for the interaction of mind and behavior. Thus, whereas the disease model in biology was a simple explanatory model that derived from the complex processes of contagion, no similar models were available in psychology because brain processes remained ill understood.

There were of course attempts to provide such models despite these limitations. In order to avoid the muddled and labyrinthine thinking that mentalism entailed, behaviorism, and in particular the operant conditioning movement meticulously documented how overt or operant behavior could be mapped in time to changing patterns of reward. However, the limitations of behaviorism became quickly apparent when it could not account for all of the behavior it purported to explain. Behavior was much more than responses to simple schedules or contingencies of reinforcement, and so behaviorism was roundly dismissed, forgotten, and frequently labeled as dead or dying (Pinker, 1997, Casti, 1989). The claims of behaviorism were discounted and thrown out, but out with the bathwater came also the baby, namely its experimental methodology. Ironically, within group methodology has never been discredited. Rather, it has been merely limited by the capability and precision of the procedures and tools that could map neural processes to environmental information derived from the senses, and the resulting inability to lead to an accessible metaphorical language that could account for those processes.

In recent years, new and better procedures and tools have been developed that have allowed psychologists to map neural processes with unparalleled precision. This has permitted psychologists for the first time to map ‘molecular’ neural processes to the large scale or ‘molar’ behavior that changes with environmental contingencies. This has enabled a new breed of behaviorists to expand what is called ‘behavior’ to include the entire organism’s behavior, from its neural underpinnings to the overt and covert behavior that such neural events manifest. This new form of behaviorism, also called theoretical (Staddon, 1998) or bio-behaviorism (Donahoe, 1993), has developed a conceptual framework that provides an accessible metaphorical model of the human mind that is implicitly grounded to real neural events. Like genetic and disease models, this metaphorical model is molecular because it can map to the moment to moment changes in overt and covert behavior that represent in aggregate an ‘experience’. For example, a ride on a roller coaster can be described as a thrilling experience. But a ‘thrilling experience’ represents but a class of covert (activating events such as emotion and alertness) and overt (holding on to the rail bars, waving ones hands) that vary with each twist and turn of the ride. Indeed, a roller coaster designer would not be interested in whether the ride as a whole was enjoyable or not, but rather in the small scale or molecular facets of the experience that were elicited by moment to moment changes in the position, incline, and velocity of the coaster. By knowing the fine grain elements that accentuate the positive experience of a roller coaster ride, the designer would be able to maximize them in future designs. Similarly, an understanding of the fine grain or molecular events that maximize the attractiveness or reinforcing nature of behavior permits a psychologist to understand how behavior is shaped, why it persists, and what small changes may be implemented that may alter behavior.

However, by focusing on incremental perceptual changes within small time scales and the brief neural events that underlie those changes, this molecular focus entails a radical shift in how behavior is conceptualized. The molecular perceptual events that change behavior are guided by equally small-scale somatic and neural events that mark the importance or salience of moment to moment changes in behavior. Changes in environment-behavior relationships that mark moment to moment shifts in attention are defined as reinforcement, which on a neural level "causes the neurotransmitter dopamine to be liberated in synaptic clefts between coactive and post synaptic neurons" (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993). Dopamine ‘fixes’ attention, makes thinking more efficient, and also and mediates feelings of elation and pleasure (Ashby, Isen, and Turken, 1999). Dopamine production is scaled to the salience of individual perceptual events (Montague et al. 1994), and can be sustained if attention must continually shift between a cascade of salient events. This fact is indirectly confirmed by the frequent self-reports of feelings of ecstasy and pleasure in situations that require an individual to shift attention between multiple salient precepts. Creative or otherwise demanding behavior (e.g. climbing mountains, performing surgery, etc.) are commonly associated with such ecstatic of flow response (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Molecular shifts in attention are also modulated by somatic activation variables that can occur within these short time frames, and are products of prior learning. These ‘somatic markers’ form the basis of emotion (Damasio, 1994), and represent pleasurable or painful somatic states (muscle relaxation, tension) that mark the salience of individual response options, and enable one to decide more effectively between those options. Somatic markers provide the ‘gut feelings’ which allow an individual to make effective decisions prior to a conscious contemplation of all alternatives. Providing a function similar to dopaminergic reinforcement processes, somatic markers "also provide a booster for continued working memory and attention", and influence nearly all behavior (Damasio, 1994).

If reinforcement is defined as molecular shifts in attention that are mediated by neural and somatic activation variables, the salience of individual perceptions must still be guided by elemental characteristics of the environment that have value. These elements are not arbitrary, but are entirely dependent upon the genetic endowment of the individual. Thus, an individual is ‘prepared’ to attend to precepts that increase personal control over food, mates and the discriminative events (money, prestige, property, etc.) that lead to that control.). However, the level and duration of neural and somatic activation or arousal is not constant across choices, and varies with changes in the salience of events, the contingency between events, and the correlation between events. For example, an individual becomes more aroused when very hungry because food is more salient, or if his safety becomes at risk. Similarly, one’s arousal may be sustained due to behavioral contingencies that demand a continuous change in perceptual set. Thus a gambler, mountain climber, or artist may become continuously aroused due to a need to continuously shift attention to different cognitive precepts. Finally an individual may become aroused by events that have a mere historical correlation of salient event with neutral events. That is, the mere association of activation variables with other concurrent environmental events adds value to these events, even though those events are not the proximal cause of those variables. For example, an individual who experiences a painful emotion trauma (e.g. a car wreck) or a blissful flow experience (e.g. climbing a mountain) will attribute his pain or pleasure to heretofore ‘neutral’ elements of the environment that framed those emotions. Thus the car wreck victim will avoid the scene of the accident or perhaps even the town in which it occurred, and the poet will attribute his ecstasy to the act of mountain climbing itself.

Although behavior is selected by an instinctive consideration of abstract elements of a situation that bestow evolutionary value, this value is continually biased or skewed by the modulation of the very activating processes that enable and enhance the ability to choose. Because value is determined by nativistic sensitivities and activating (attentive arousal, emotion) neural and somatic events that change on a moment to moment basis, reinforcement becomes a continuous and not a discrete event, and therefore cannot be homeostatic or disembodied. Since reinforcement is determined by the aspects of moment to moment somatic and neural stimulation, it is inherently heterostatic and embodied. In other words, reinforcement is not disassociated from affect, it is affect. Secondly, metaphorical models of molecular reinforcement processes bestow greater predictive power than molar models of reinforcement that engage metaphorical ‘faculties’ such as will power, courage, etc., and permit a more parsimonious and comprehensive account of the facts of behavior. Third, the identification of reinforcement with changes in perceptual set that may represent actual or virtual (as-if) environmental changes is contrary to well established economic and popular opinion that identifies value with the possession of individual objects. Thus popular conceptions of materialism are wrong.

The Selfless Gene

Ultimately, the problem with mentalistic or memetic explanations for behavior is that they are misconstrued to be accurate and precise models of behavior, when they are merely heuristic models that generally summarize cause and effect. We do not question these explanations because they generally serve us well in our day to day lives, where speed rather than accuracy in thinking is important. However, the ability to switch to more accurate modes of thinking is still critical when prediction is important. A baseball player for example can summarize the activity of throwing a ball by saying he threw the ball hard, but immediately switch to more precise explanations that involve throwing angle, stance, and grip. Similarly, we can switch from mentalistic and memetic accounts of behavior that engage mental faculties (will power, courage, contagious ideas, etc.) to explanations that involve the individual causal events that are the product of learning and present experience.

Throughout the history of philosophy and psychology, the limited predictive power of molar explanations has always been ‘enhanced’ by the addition of ad hoc inferred processes that in hindsight provide perfect post hoc predictions, but add little or nothing to their predictive power. The fact that molar reinforcement principles have limited predictive power underscores the fact that the values they engender (e.g. materialism) can only erratically sustain personal satisfaction or happiness. Moreover, since molar reinforcers are not ubiquitous, and generally have to be rationed, many philosophers spend entire careers examining and justifying how they are to be divided up. Thus ‘having it all’ also means someone else cannot have it all, with accompanying problems of moral justification that justify the existence of theologians, philosophers, politicians, and of course psychologists.

In contrast, molecular reinforcement principles do not have this difficulty. Because molecular reinforcement derives from as-if relationships that are modeled virtually, and need effect no imminent or even future change in the material world, reinforcement becomes not a scarce commodity, but a potentially unlimited one. If happiness is equated with the maximization of the reinforcing events we encounter daily, then an identification of reinforcement with heterostatic events can not only create worlds of limitless value, but sharply enhance an inclination towards behaviors that reflect a moral temperament.

Human beings are all instinctively drawn to actions that maximize their self-interest, or in an evolutionary sense, their genetic fittedness. However, the fact that the human brain was engineered to pursue heterostatic rather than homeostatic ends defines value not in a search for things, but rather in the stimulating implications of those things as mediated by their informative context. Furthermore, since stimulation itself biases behavior, and directs it away from aims that strictly maximize genetic fittedness, fittedness alone cannot reflect the single standard by which behavior must be judged. These standards contrast with those objective values that logically serve our self-interest, and result in behavior that is frequently called ‘self-less’. Hence an individual who is able to model the behaviors of other people will be emotionally reinforced by an estimate of how they will positively respond to his actions, but will also be emotionally restrained if that estimate is less salutary. Furthermore, he will compromise the choices that maximize his real interest to those that maximize his virtual interest. Thus, an individual can give up his life for God and country, be faithful to his wife, and neither cheat nor steal, and give up his real interests for rewards that reflect only conceptual value.
The fact that value is virtual, and involves abstract changes in environmental relationships creates new criteria for social values, and ultimately for the design of cultures. Heterostatic value favors more complex conceptual objects, since complexity forces rapid perceptual set changes that mediate neural arousal and feelings of pleasure. Heterostatic value also favors empathy, since empathy allows the continuous modeling of complex objects. Finally, heterostatic value favors ease in communications, since effective communication reduces the cost for information transfer. In other words, maximally reinforcing environments are comprised of complex conceptual objects that we can model in our minds and share easily with others.

So what would this brave new world look like? Ironically, it is precisely the same world we idealize through our cultural traditions. In spite of an onslaught of materialistic values that reduce value to collections of physical objects that merely maximize our physical survivability, we long for worlds that entice, enhance, and enable our imaginations. These worlds take form in the idealized cultures of Ancient Greece, Elizabethan England, and Renaissance Italy. Intelligent and urbane populations who have broad, intricate and competitive interests, share information widely and easily (after all, Athens, London, and Florence were small cities or city states, and in an internet-less world, were perfectly fashioned for ‘sneaker-net’ communications) and know each other’s minds. Historical tradition assigns the genius of cultures to accidents of geography, economic competition, military threat, or perhaps some innate racial characteristic. Yet when genius is considered, the supporting environment is often forgotten or disparaged, as if Plato, Shakespeare and Michelangelo rose above their times when they were merely products of their times. The creativity of scientists, saints, and sages is sustained by a multiple set of challenges that are mediated by culture to beget universal interest that may frequently end in the highly creative accomplishment marked by a few. In other words, when cultures provide the mechanisms to maximize stimulation through the multi-faceted and universally applied reinforcement of the effort to create, and when entire populations aspire to genius, individual genius inevitably follows.

Evolutionary Humanism

The defining principles of humanism, a belief in the primacy of man’s creation, and empathy for its creators, have traditionally been defined as super-ordinate, or imposed from above. Human virtue and creativity did not emerge from simpler, more primitive processes, but rather were sparked by extra-biological or vitalistic forces such as consciousness, free will, or the grace of God. Ultimately however, an appeal to vitalistic causes begs or obscures the question of causation. Yet, vitalistic reasons for behavior remain enduringly attractive because they provide simple reasons and a needed justification for general tendencies of behavior that we implicitly feel are necessary and true. Hence, if we cannot justify human virtue through reason, an appeal to extra-human causes is enough to justify our love of our fellow man. However, if complex forms of behavior can derive from simple biological principles, can human virtue be far behind? Does human goodness ultimately flow from reasoning based in knowledge of the simplest things?

Arguably, the principles first espoused by Charles Darwin arguably provide us with the deepest and most general insights into how we may understand complex phenomena (Donahoe, 1997). Darwin’s two major conceptual contributions were that structure and function were inter-linked, and that structure or morphology was the cumulative effect of natural selection. His second major contribution was that complex structure/function arose as the emergent product of lower level processes acting over time. No appeal to higher level principles was required to understand the origins of complex structure and function. "Instead, complexity emerged as a byproduct of fundamental biological processes whose effects were largely captured by the principle of natural selection" (Donahoe, 1997).

However, these general principles were not fully accepted until the molecular processes behind genetics and the flow of genes across generations was fully understood. The resulting synthetic theory of evolution provided broader principles of selection thus could span from molar and molecular principles, and could explain how man evolved and how cells mutate. Likewise, to be persuasive, selectionistic principles in psychology must also derive from an understanding of the molecular processes that produce learning. Presently, evolutionary psychology is not totally persuasive since it still lacks an accounting of the actual neural processes that underlie choice. This has helped perpetuate arguments revolving about contentions whether this behavior or that behavior is the result of nature, nurture, or some tangled combination of both.

The application of large scale or molar evolutionary principles to the molecular processes that determine individual choice is based on the erroneous idea that these higher level principles may adequately describe lower level cognitive processes. There was thus no need to understand molecular processes since those processes were generally isomorphic to higher level processes. That is, the symbol manipulation in common language is in some way equivalent to smaller scale but equally algorithmic computational processes in the brain.

The assumption that nativistic or inborn sensitivities are the basis of value precludes ‘humanistic’ considerations of moral sentiment and religious value. Indeed, these considerations could only be viewed as a cultural artifact that do not directly emerge from selectionistic principles, but were a societal imposition that masked our true genetic impulses. However, this position is only half right, since the brain was designed to crave means, not just ends. Decision-making is enabled by heterostatic and embodied mechanisms that add value to the modeled implications of behavior. It thus provides a neurological explanation and justification for empathy. Therefore, the moral rules that derive from empathy are not imposed, and they need not even be articulated in common law or religious commandments. Rather, morality simply emerges from basic processes of socialization, and is progressively heightened as we begin to know more of our worlds, and the mental worlds of other people. Socialization, or the totality of education and experience that gains us the ability to experience and model the world, enfolds and embraces our reinforcers and our morals. The humanistic values that exalt cultural complexity and moral virtue are a natural byproduct of the rudimentary neural processes that in concert make us human. In the best sense, to be understand and accept evolutionary principles is to recognize that humanistic values are the culmination of evolution.


Ashby, F. G., Isen, Alice M., and Turken U. (1999) A Neuropsychological Theory of Positive Affect and Its Influence on Cognition, Psychological Review, 106, (3), 529-550
Casti, John L. (1989) Paradigms Lost. Tackling the Unanswered Mysteries of Modern Science, Avon p.237
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990) Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Collins
Damasio, Antonio R. (1994) Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Avon
Dawkins, Richard (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Donahoe, J.W. and D. C. Palmer (1993) Learning and Complex Behavior, Allyn and Bacon
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Montague, P.R., Dayan P. Sejnowski, T.J. (1994) Foraging in an uncertain environment using predictive Hebbian learning. In: J.D. Dowan, G. Tesauro and J. Alspector (eds.) Neural Information Processing Systems, 6, Morgan Kaufmann, San Francisco, pp. 598-605

Pinker, Steven (1997) How the mind works. Norton p. 57-58
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Staddon, John (1993) Behaviorism. Duckworth

Monday, January 02, 2006

Richard Dawkins Bad Idea: Meme's Genes and the Metaphors of Psychology

In times past, if the devil didn’t get you, the vapors would, and if they didn’t, humours, poisons, bile or any number of fanciful entities would do you in. With Pasteur and 19th century biology, these agents of illness were replaced with microscopic organisms, and the invention of the disease model made it easy to attribute your aches and pains to malicious bacteria, viruses, or other little microscopic buggers. Of course, then as now, few people understand the actual biological processes that are responsible for disease, but the metaphors for disease do just fine, and have been duly incorporated into the common vernacular. Some may say that these metaphors have worked a bit too well, since they have made a Procrustean stretch to cover all sorts of behaviors, from alcoholism to gambling. Nonetheless, the incorporation of metaphors from the syntax of science does provide a correcting influence to common sense, which earlier had only recourse to metaphors that engaged evil spirits and deadly vapors to help explain the world.

Nowadays, man has access to a wealth of metaphors from modern science. Cancers, black holes, laser beams, and computer viruses have replaced the vitalistic metaphors that assigned causes to ethereal spirits, evil demons, or invisible ethers. Of course, the incorporation of the metaphors of the biological and physical sciences into common language does not entail the ability to map actual processes, but only suggest those processes. The metaphorical description of a cold and its viral causes does not equate with a biochemical or biological description that requires a strict syntax and data language all its own. Thus when we mix our metaphors by talking about rampaging viruses spreading like wildfire from person to person, we know that our description only suggests what viruses are doing in the large, not the actual processes that cause them to propagate and harm.

The mixing of metaphors from different data languages can be poetic insofar as it suggests the juxtaposition or correlation of causes and events, or it can be interpreted as literal insofar as it presumed to denote actual processes. But how do we know if ‘rampaging viruses’ are a literal or a figurative representation of the truth? The ability in science to distinguish the literal from the alliterative is the mark of good science, and good science writing. A physicist may talk about matter using the metaphors of billiard balls, time warps, and cosmic string, but the literalness of those concepts is intentionally undermined by a continuous restatement of the mathematical metaphors that belie their literal reality. So why does a physicist engage two sets of metaphors when he can participate in his science quite well without the need to postulate billiard ball atoms and the like? It is simply because ‘understanding’ requires it. On the one hand, common sense metaphors are easily understood through their appeal to conceptual domains that we readily perceive (e.g. up, down, fast, slow, hot, cold), but mathematical metaphors (e.g. E=mc2) correct for the tendency to make their existence literal. Well-written books that popularize ‘hard’ physical science all recognize the necessity to utilize two different sets of metaphors that correct the deficiencies of the other. Thus an understanding of the physical world can engage metaphors that are derived from our native experience and those that are derived from the abstract language of mathematics. Understanding consists in our ability to move from once set of conceptual metaphors (e.g. green grass, hot suns, expanding universes) to another (e.g. the calculus, non-Euclidean geometry). It is no less than our ability to shift between different languages that enables us to envision the world.

Sometimes however, two entirely different sets of conceptual metaphors may be quite similar in terms of the processes they describe, and proceed to confirm rather than contrast with one another. Newtonian ideas of acceleration, mass, gravity, force, etc. have long been assimilated into our popular lexicon because a Newtonian view of the universe coheres with our own naïve experience. The mechanical universe of Newton corresponds with common sense theories of the physics of cars, boats, apples, and other physical objects, and is much easier to understand and accept than other more accurate physical theories that are reflected in the conceptual metaphors of Einsteinian relativity and Quantum theory. However, the conceptual metaphors associated with relativity and the invisible quantum correct for the literal interpretation of Newtonian mechanics as a representation of reality, and have entailments (e.g. time travel, multiple universes, quantum indeterminacy) that are dramatically at odds with the Newtonian conception of a clockwork universe.

In the biological sciences, the Darwinian principles of natural selection have an import comparable to Newton, and the conceptual metaphors of evolution find an equal correspondence with common sense theories of human psychology. Common sense or ‘folk’ theories of psychology tell us that we are motivated by ordinary objects (e.g. cars, jewelry, money, sex) whose value we determine consciously, and either impel (as in eliciting drives and reflexes) or compel (as in rewards, reinforcers, or punishers) behavior. In a Newtonian sense, our lives revolve around the collection of ordinary objects that push and pull us to them from a distance, and populate but scarcely our psychological universe.
This common sense explanation of how behavior is selected bridges quite easily to conceptual metaphors that describe how biological entities are selected, and by implication to the behavior that is instantiated by those entities. Thus patterns of behavior that are elicited by instinctive events can be ultimately attributed to individual genetic influences that are objectified in the metaphors of the activities of individual genes. Similarly, the common sense notion that ideas are selected by some obscure competition between objective alternatives also finds an equal bridge to selectionist principles that are derived from biology. Thus, just as Newtonian physics and common sense physics seem to confirm each other, common sense psychology and Darwinian biology share similar metaphorical principles that explain respectively how behavioral and biological selections are made.
As with the blending of metaphors that saw the adoption of Newtonian terms into common sense physics, metaphors from biology and ‘folk’ psychology have also become commingled, and thus form a new explanatory framework for behavior that explains behavior as a Darwinian process. Thus genes become ‘selfish’, and ideas or memes become ‘contagious’. But these are only two different levels of thinking, and do not implicate the metaphorical schemes that explain the actual neurological processes that underlie behavior.
Darwinian or sociobiological explanations strongly imply that the molar processes of cumulative selection that led to bumblebees and human beings are isomorphic with neural or ‘molecular’ processes of the mind that lead to the selection of behavior. But an implication is not a demonstration, as a sociobiological explanation merely establishes a similarity between the metaphors of common sense and natural selection. The overriding question is not whether genes and memes represent a good metaphorical bridge between common sense and biological explanations for behavior, but whether they provide an equally good metaphorical representation of the biobehavioral processes that instigate behavior. The question is analogous to that posed by Quantum physicists to the common sense and academic views that extended the metaphors of Newtonian physics to the molecular world of the atom. The answer to that question was not a reaffirmation of the perspective of atoms as mere baby solar systems, but of the creation of an entirely new science that was equally rooted in the empirical tradition of science. That science was quantum physics.

A biobehavioral explanation of behavior represents the mapping of the actual neurological processes that comprise behavior to the patterns of information or environmental contingencies that parallel and elicit them (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993). This information is in turn mediated by somatic events that are perceived as emotion (Damasio, 1996), activating neurological events that comprise attentional processes (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993), and nativistic (i.e.inborn or genetic) sensitivities to certain abstract patterns of information (Bolles, 1976). Whereas a biobehavioral explanation is neurally realistic because it ties behavior to actual neural and informative events, a sociobiological explanation is neurally unrealistic, and merely substitutes neurological processes with Darwinian metaphors.

Biobehavioral science, which is also known as 2nd generation cognitive science (Lakoff, 1999), or theoretical behaviorism (Staddon, 1990), is like evolutionary psychology entirely informed by evolutionary principles. However, it is more rigorously empirical because of its insistence on ultimately observing or reliably inferring the neural processes that intervene between information and behavior. Biobehavioral and evolutionary psychology are represented by entirely different sets of conceptual metaphors that are respectively entailed by molecular (small scale processes and time frames) and molar (large scale processes and time frames) processes. The polarity of these metaphors is remarkable, and can be reduced to the following contrasting principles.

Evolutionary psychology and folk psychology share the implicit presumption that decision making is generally based on the conscious and disembodied appraisal of ordinary objects that lead to the maximization of our self interest. In contrast, biobehavioral psychology has demonstrated that most reasoning is not conscious but nonconscious (Lewicki, 1992; Greenwald, 1992), and is guided by embodied non-verbalized somatic (Damasio, 1994) and neural activation events (Donahoe and Palmer, 1997) that are ‘just as cognitive as any other perceptual image’ (Damasio, 1994). Because nonconscious embodied reasoning is computable but not directly accessible by conscious reasoning, we often find that our conscious reasoning about what is a ‘best outcome’ conflicts with our nonconscious determination of ‘best outcome’. Thus there is no univocal or self-consistent locus of value (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999). (Remember this next time you reluctantly try to get up in the morning.) Values are due to the binding of many information streams that are mediated by disparate neural and somatic processes, and motivate behavior in real time as they are perceived, and not when the physical or objective entity that denotes such information is attained. (In other words, it’s the thought that counts) Thus value is not found in some conceptual object like a meme, but in separate threads of information that are mediated by the mind and body that individually have salience to an individual and are perceived presently, independently, virtually, and for the most part nonconsciously. In other words, the concept of ideas as compartmentalized memes leads us to find value in the obvious topographical or ‘surface’ aspects of an idea, whereas it is the non-obvious abstract properties that are actually selected. Because value resides in information that is often incognizant to us, it cannot be subject to the economic models that are based on the rationing of value according to some single utilitarian measure, or the mathematical decision models such as game theory that conceptualize value simplistically as being no more than material wealth.

The definition of a meme as an independent conceptual object is ultimately not simple, but simplistic, since it does not denote the web of informative relationships between behavior and and the environment that is denoted by consciously and nonconsciously by the mind and body proper. For example, the concept of the sport of football is a well traveled meme to be sure. Football represents a rather involved information pattern that has infected the minds of young men nationwide, and football games, commentary, and assorted chatter has parasitized not only the minds of people, but the network airwaves, the written media, and many unwilling housewives. But is a football game an indivisible meme like entity, or is it somewhat different than the sum of its parts? Actually, the ‘meme’ of football is not a singular information pattern that replicates like a strand of DNA, but rather emerges from a web of separate patterns of information that are mediated not only by consciously perceived information but by neural and somatic activating processes that we otherwise call emotion. The meme of football is not just a compendium of rules, but comprises the memory of the somatic responses that occur while watching (excitement, depression), the natural feeling of elation that occurs with a high state of alertness, the virtual extension of control over all those partisans of the losing team, the constantly changing and stimulating prediction error that occurs as one play after another unfolds, the smell and taste of hot dogs and beer, the camaraderie of friends, and so on. The meme of football is in other words a web of perceptual relationships that is volatile and constantly changing. Moreover, different aspects of the meme football may be present in one circumstance, and not present in another. Watching your team lose at a hostile stadium on a rainy day is a whole lot less rewarding than if you were watching your team at home while among friends.

The most important distinction contrast between evolutionary psychology and bio-behavioral psychology is that bio-behavioral psychology denotes value not in the assimilation of ideas or memes, but in changes in the relationships between memes, or behavioral discrepancies (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993). To explain this, we must understand first how a meme does not reproduce.

Although a meme represents a self replicating packet of information, unlike a virus it possesses no internal instructions that secure its influence on behavior, let alone its retention in memory. Memes or ideas take root in memory because they are rehearsed, and they are rehearsed because of their contingent relationship to a myriad other ideas that comprise the stimulus context of a behavior. This idea of contingency is critical to the methodology of modern behaviorism, and underlines the fact that it is not ideas alone that motivate, but the dependencies between ideas. The meme of a fishhook for example hardly comes to mind until it is perceived as part of a means-end (memes-end?) expectancy. We think of fish hooks because of the fish it can catch, but to even think about fishing one must also think about the time, place, and equipment that allows one to fish. If any of these events fail to take place, there is hardly a need to think about fishing, or for that matter the meme of fishhooks. An atomized universe of memes does not implicate the contingent relationship between ideas that secures the rehearsal and retention of a ‘good idea’. Behavior is elicited not by individual memes but by global maps of means-end expectancies that are constantly changing, and are in general non-consciously perceived. However, what causes us to think about fishhooks, fishing trips or other ideas is the fact the relationships they denote are selected and are mentally rehearsed. We constantly think about a fishhook as it winds its way from our tackle box to the end of our fishing line because in every moment the relationship between the fishhook and the line changes, and it is the change that gains our attention. Thus, we select not only memes, but also the abstract relationships between memes as they are moderated by our thoughts and overt behavior. Ultimately, as Alexander the Great found out when he wept upon having no more new worlds to conquer, what motivates is not the end, but in the traveling.

Unfortunately, Darwinian and common sense models can no more describe the molecular ‘environment-behavior’ relationships that comprise human motivation than a weatherman’s description of an impending cold front describes how a snow storm forms over your head. We would err in using a molar analysis (cold fronts) to describe molecular process (the formation of clouds) because the inherent processes implied by storm systems and storm clouds are different. Likewise, the human brain is a massively parallel biological computer, and metaphors from information processing are far more apt than biological metaphors that liken ideas to viruses and their spread to contagion, let alone the metaphors from common sense that posit a disembodied objectified reasoning. The lack of ‘fit’ of Darwinian and common sense metaphors to bio-behavioral science does not invalidate the selectionist principles that inform all of the sciences. But it does point out the level confusion that occurs when a set of principles from one level of understanding (biology) are invoked not just to explain another (an in the juxtaposition of the metaphors of cosmic string and mathematics) but to embody another. In other words, because the uses of memes and genes is not corrected by an understanding of how the brain as a neural system actually works, the metaphorical conception of memes and genes can easily be seen as not just figuratively real, but literally real.

The ultimate danger in assigning a literal reality to the means-end rationality imposed by utilitarian memes and genes is that it implies that we implicitly know what is in our best interest. Furthermore the convergence of the metaphors of common sense and Darwinism reinforce the idea that value is objectified and is a limited commodity, and must be allocated to those who are most fit to achieve it. In this way, a meme world becomes ‘mean’ world, wherein our memetic impulses robotically drive us forward to achieve our goals, with the long term survival of our genes and memes being the only necessary outcome.

In contrast to this cold and sterile vision, bio-behavioral psychology defines value not as a scarce commodity, but in the creation of information that is consumed virtually. That is, if value is denoted in abstract informative relationships between ideas, then it is prospectively unlimited, and is constrained not by our inability to manufacture physical things, but by our ability to create and perceive information. But perception requires the skills that enable us to mentally model the world, from the implications of the cheers of a crowd in a football game to the thoughts of a proud parent. To experience the world is to model it, and that is nothing more than empathy. Universal empathy allows us to expand and enhance the rewards we perceive, but it also constrains our behavior due to the virtual penalties (e.g. shame, embarrassment) we perceive. Cultures that understand that value derives from the development of empathy will take an entirely different course than the materialistic societies that posit value as the accumulation of objects. Indeed, information is more economically produced by a societal exaltation of sports, art, literature and music than by the manufacture of a new prestige automobile. Ironically, the lasting legacy of a psychology that is informed by evolutionary principles is not the amoral world driven by the erroneous metaphors of selfish genes and infectious memes, but by the evolutionary mandate of an expanding empathy, and our innate interest in the cultivation of beauty.

Bolles, Robert C. (1976) Theory of Motivation. 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row
Damasio, Antonio R. (1994) Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Avon

Greenwald, A.G. (1992) Unconscious Cognition Reclaimed, American Psychologist, 766-775

Lewicki, P., Hill, T., & Czyewska, M. (1992) Nonconscious acquisition of information, American Psychologist, 47, 796-801
Donahoe, J. W. and D. C. Palmer (1993) Learning and Complex Behavior, Allyn and Bacon
Donahoe, J. W., D. C. Palmer, and Jose E. Burgos (1997) The Unit of Selection: What do reinforcers reinforce?, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 67, 259-273
Donahoe, J. W. (1997) Neural-Networks Models of Cognition, J. W. Donahoe and V. Packard Dorsel (Eds.)
Lakoff, George, and Johnson, Mark (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books
Staddon, John (1993) Behaviorism , Duckworth

(the best introduction to bio-behaviorism comes from Shull’s article on the website of the Journal for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, and the scholarly commentary also at the JEAB website that discussed this new school of behaviorism. An understanding of metaphor and how it heavily influences ideas in evolutionary psychology can be found on the many web sites that discuss the work of the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, and in particular his new book: Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its challenge to Western Thought)