Rationality: a Product and Process of Evolution

David Musick (David_Musick@msn.com)
Thu, 15 Aug 96 16:43:56 UT

In the first Thread in HotWired's BrainTennis, I posted something which
mentioned that rationality is a product of and in the process of evolution. I
also posted something to that effect here. In BrainTennis, Alexander
Chislenko posted something which disagreed with what I wrote, and since we
were getting off the main topic of the Thread, I wrote to him privately, but I
think some of you may be interested in what I wrote, so I'm posting it here:

First of all, I am constantly amazed at my own rationality, and how quickly
the processes of rationality can analyze a problem, evaluate partial solutions
and eventually come up with a solution to the problem. It's certainly much
faster than blind trial-and-error, but I still maintain that rationality, as
wonderful as it is, is still a product of evolution and constantly engaged in
the process of evolution.
I understand rationality to be a very streamlined and efficient way of
understanding things and thinking about things. We didn't start out with this
faculty, when we were born, but our minds keep fine-tuning themselves, through
a process of evolution and selection, where the better ways of thinking
consistently win out over inferior ways of thinking. Ways of thinking that
consistently bring the child a reward by getting the child what it wants will
be reinforced in the child's mind. This is the process of selection; the ways
of thinking that can't make it through the selection process are discontinued.
Through schooling and other learning environments, children find themselves
in situations where they must perform rationally to receive praise, and
because they desire praise, they continue to refine their processes of
rationality. Our ancestors found themselves in situations where they had to
perform rationally to just *survive* (and so do we, but it's just not as
immediately obvious, and some of us can get away with extreme irrationality).
There was once an experiment done where humans' brain activity was monitored
as they learned how to play the computer game, Tetris. When they frist began
playing, they played very poorly, and their brains were very active. As they
played, their performance improved and their brain activity decreased, until
they played like experts and exhibited the same amount of brain activity as
they did when they sat around doing nothing. This is a good example of the
mind refining itself and becoming more efficient at doing certain tasks. It
starts out using a tremendous amount of resources, all working on the problem,
and through some kind of selection process, it only keeps the activities which
have an appearantly desirable effect in solving the problem. Until it ends up
with a very advanced and efficient Tetris playing nodule.
I think that the same type of thing happens as our rational processes
develop. We start out with all kinds of possible ways to solve problems, and
we don't know which ways are best, but as the various approaches try
themselves out, they compete with each other, and the approaches which most
consistently bring rewards are reinforced more than those which don't and
eventually, the inefficient processes are discontinued altogether while the
more successful ones are fully operative.
But, even though our rationality is an extremely efficient process, it is
continually refining itself, at least in active minds. I notice that my own
rationality is constantly mutating into many different varieties,sometimes
with very minor changes, sometimes with greater changes, and these variations
are all subject to competition with each other, and the types of thinking
which seem to work best are selected for and given more resources while
appearantly inferior types of thinking are discontinued.
Recognizing that rationality is a product of and in a process of evolution
doesn't make it any less good or praiseworthy. On the contrary, it
significantly improves my faith in my rational processes to know that they
exist because they are the current winners of intense competition between
various ways of thinking. Yes, village life is more rational than jungle
life, for the same reasons that an adult's mind is more rational than a
child's mind. They have simply gone further along the process of selection
and evolution.
Just because something's evolutionary, doesn't mean that it starts over from
ground-zero every time it tries to solve a problem. Evolution bulids on
itself, using existing processes to solve problems and continually refining
itself through variation and selection. Our rationality is definitely
evolutionary (it is the product of evolution, and it is in a process of
constant evolution and refinement). It is many orders of magnitude faster and
more powerful than genetic evolution, so I can understand your reluctance to
include the two types of evolution as basically the same type of thing. I
think that the interconnectivity and the feedback loops are much tighter in
the mind than in biology. But I think that the same type of process is
occuring in everything; the process of variation and selection, where
processes which can't maintain themselves in relation to surrounding
processes, simply don't continue. These processes may be biological
processes, where DNA mutates and variations appear in different organisms
which compete for resources, or they may occur in the brain, where various
patterns of activity either maintain themselves or are discontinued, or they
may occur in the marketplace, as various products are exchanged and competing
with each other. There are many mediums where evolution can take place (and
that's something the Artificial Life people are studying; creating
evolutionary environments in computers).

Enough said; I think you get the idea.

David Musick