by Glen McBride, Emeritus Professor of Social Ethology in the
Animal Behaviour Unit (Psychology Department) at the University of Queensland
and author of The Genesis Chronicles: The evolution of humankind.
We all joined Sea of Faith because there was much we didn’t know or understand. We continued our search within this community, coming together regularly to share the stories of our studies. Our searches have taken us in many quite different directions, but generally around the fringes of religions.
Some still search hopefully within the ancient writings of their religions. Thousands have spent lifetimes in such study, and diminishing returns have become exhausted. There are many words written on religions, and, these are the major — perhaps only — source of knowledge we have about them. Others look at the many religions that fill the minds of humans everywhere, and seek to understand how religions serve humankind. Yet others seek to understand why religions are such powerful forces within people’s lives.
There are many paths to the understanding that members of our community seek. Each member brings the understandings they have gained, and shares them with us all. It is in this spirit that I bring the stories I have discovered; I will share a biological view of our humanity.
I have been an agnostic since George Bernard Shaw (GBS) convinced me that many things were unknowable; I was then a very young Christian bookworm, just arrived in the UK back in 1944; I plundered the wonderful bookshops that I had never discovered in Australia. GBS convinced me to become agnostic. After the war, I decided to read the Bible, all of it. I needed to feel sure that agnosticism was a realistic response. I remained agnostic. In a very long life since, I became a biologist, a geneticist and student of animal behaviour, now called an ethologist. Slowly it filled me with the excitement of evolution, realizing of course that though biology could show me more about human life, it could never deal with unknowables, like gods.
Knowing about animal and human behaviour in a psychology department taught me about the societies in which we all live; genetics and the study of selection enriched my understanding of evolution.
Societies probably evolved early in animal development. Societies are the context of most animal and human life; they became the repository for all knowledge accumulated in any species, and the source of all morality throughout the animal world. Indeed, how could animals live together in the thousand situations and arrangements they encounter without rules; moral rules? Societies always live on, they are the immortal part of animal life; on the other hand individuals within them are temporary: mortal. In our species, it is our societies that will continue, ever accumulating all that is human, such as our attempts: to manage and change our societies; to improve moralities; to educate children; to create fairness and harmony; and to develop our humanity.
Through society, we and all animals are educated in societal living, we all learn to participate in the life of our own species; they, and we, may quarrel with neighbours, but we do so within the security of our own societies. We all learn to live in an expected world of everything around us; but we all focus our attention especially on others like ourselves, our conspecifics, our societies.
We either invented or discovered gods. When we first found ways to tell stories we discovered we could talk and ask questions. Since we were very recently speechless animals and without questions, the questions about the experiential stories we were telling soon gave ways to other questions. There had to be a cause for all those things we now discovered we didn’t understand: the sun and rain, the storms and winds, the unexplained deaths and illnesses.
Then there were those dead relatives who appeared in our dreams, doing what we still did. Our ancestors found answers and found roles for powers beyond their own. Their answers were the first steps towards our religions. But our newly conscious and speaking ancestors really had to face the millions of questions. We didn’t invent gods, they did; there was no option. They really needed spirits or gods powerful enough to organize a world that was brand new to their understanding.
When they needed help, something common enough, it was inevitable that someone asked whether such power figures could provide that help. Asking for help in the hunts and forage would often be rewarded; they were competent hunters and foragers. Their little groups had rules of behaviour; they knew what was right or wrong, it was embedded in their society, it was ancient. I suspect that we attributed to figures of power the qualities that our societies had taught us to value. We took the moralities of our society and attributed them to our newly invented ’gods’. Clearly gods must oppose everything objectionable in individuals; those things not conforming to society’s expectations.
Most of us don’t think much about the topic ’society’. Yet most animals live in small communities within their societies as we do. Animal societies take hundreds of forms, each society presumably evolving because individuals with the particular evolved social behaviour could best thrive in each of these societies. They also allowed the distribution of the resources of each habitat, though not always fairly. Societies are built by natural selection into the minds of individuals, for it is individuals who create, maintain and change societies.
To maintain any sort of stability, whether in a society or your own body temperature, a cybernetic system is needed; this ’general system’ model was first described by von Bertalanffy in 1950 1.
Your body ’knows’ the temperature it expects and always monitors it. It is able to detect any change and has mechanisms to restore it: negative feedback. The great distortion a marathon runner creates can be controlled by the negative feedback mechanisms. If the mechanisms fail, the distortion may be increased, it might even become positive feedback, in which case the individual is in serious trouble.
What are these mechanisms in society, for you know that you live in a stable society? Indeed, natural selection could not produce anything that could not maintain itself throughout all the problems of living. Natural selection can only produce cybernetic systems, that is ones that are stable and self-maintaining. Systems without these properties would fail, whether as individuals or societies. Let’s look at the mechanisms maintaining societal stability.
The famous philosopher of science Daniel Dennett 2. once described ’the unconscious driving experience’ in which we have all walked or driven somewhere and could not remember anything of the trip. The driving required skills and the trip may have been through a busy city or pleasant country scenes; you noticed and remembered nothing. You were aware, not conscious. You were aware — in monitoring mode — checking that everything your senses delivered to your mind was as expected; it must have been, for you would have remembered anything unexpected. Your senses deliver a stream of images, mostly visual. Each of these is then compared with the images you have of these ordinary scenes in memory.
If there is no difference, the comparison brings the memorized scene image up to date and discards information on the comparison; it has no further relevance and would be clutter, so it is best if it is not remembered. Bringing images up to date is important; only up-to-date images would be relevant for future visits to these surroundings.
If the comparison yields a difference, the result is very different. The mind immediately generates what is called an Orienting Response (OR), a moment of high attention, high learning, some cognition to understand this difference and, finally, make a decision as to how to respond.
The OR was first described by Pavlov 3. in 1927. Thousands of studies of the OR have been made by scientists, mainly psychologists, using people and laboratory animals. On the other hand I know of no studies by ethologists who see ORs daily in the natural contexts in which they evolved. With an OR, you will remember! But the OR involves the cognitive challenge that you and every animal faces.
The famous anthropologist Gregory Bateson challenged me with this question: ’Is it a difference that makes a difference?’ For you and presumably every animal in an OR, the answer to this question is urgent. You may need more information from your senses, you look around urgently. From your memory you seek images of similar events or experiences; all this information must then be integrated to find an understanding and reach that decision. You and me, we know this requires both consciousness and cognition. For one who has watched animals as a career, the question is also, ’can animals require less?’ Indeed, I have elsewhere argued 4. that our own consciousness and cognition evolved from the processes within the Orienting Response, for natural selection usually starts from existing traits when we are looking to produce something new, and our extended consciousness and cognitive capacities were quite new to animal life. How does ’unconscious driving’, what I call being aware, and the OR relate to our question on societal stability?
I suggest that the combination of awareness, Dennett’s unconscious driving experience, and the OR was natural selection’s really magnificent development. It meant that every animal could live its life in the present, fully aware, monitoring its social and physical environment finding all expected, yet remembering nothing, avoiding cluttering memories with the endless expected nothingness of everyday living. Yet the OR was always immediately available, offering the ability to detect and instantly respond to any change, any possible danger.
Animals could live strategically in an expected environment, aware but living only in the present, able to monitor everything sensed, endlessly checking for change. Change, or recognition of anything is only possible by a comparison of two images, one from the senses and one from memory. The animal or person does not need a memory filled with the minutiae of everyday life; the unconscious driving experience is one of natural selection’s blessings.
Being aware rather than conscious, living only in the present, is a talent we brought from our animal ancestors. It is the endless checking that all is familiar, that society is stable, expected. Only with this endless conformation of expected stability can change be detected. Animals have had this awareness/OR system for many millions of years. Our transition to people added the new talent of improving the consciousness and cognition of the OR, not just for minutes, but for hours, accessing all memories, indeed, bringing them under mind control. It is this mind we brought from animals.
As a student of animal behaviour, I believe that animals too have evolved ways of extending the ’conscious’ period of the OR, but without the need for our ability to access memories not relevant to their immediate situation. Two such situations are in hunting and exploration. You have watched on television a lion hunting, creeping forward, inch by inch, motionless at the tiniest disturbance in the potential prey, finally deciding on the moment to charge, to attack. Every moment needed high attention, some consciousness, access to every relevant memory leading finally to that decision built on experience.
Attention in exploration is also extended in time. In novel surroundings, the animal must be highly alert to images from experiences of danger; but it is now comparing sensory input with categories rather than exact images from memory; it must learn everything relevant to new decisions to be made. We often know those decisions, for eventually the animal will have ’chosen’ places for drinking, for body care, for resting and perhaps sleeping and regular paths between these familiar places. It has built new mental maps of a now familiar environment. I define environment as that portion of surroundings in which animals can detect change, in other words their maps of their world. This mapping will include only parts relevant to the animal, places to be monitored, all and every day in the aware state. These memorized image maps of all physical and societal surroundings provide the endless flow of remembered images being compared with the images the senses are taking in, moment by moment.
Environment is the expected world we all inhabit. For animals monitoring also may contain the territorial boundaries of its group. It includes the dominance ranks of the others in its group, and how close to approach those of ’higher’ rank. Mothers and offspring must monitor endlessly their spacing from each other and where there are moving and potential dangers for youngsters. All are monitoring for dangers, ready to respond with an alarm call immediately any potential danger is detected.
This raises the question of the search images carried by animals and people, a part of the monitoring that is ever a part of the aware state. The best example of a search image is familiar to us all. We know a dog can be used to track a fugitive or someone lost, holding the image in its mind, continuously comparing it with every new imaged sensed, allowing the decision to continue following the trail. A dog can also be trained to detect the presence of drugs in airports. Training provides the search images it uses daily.
Search images are part of the animal minds we have inherited. We know that our hominin ancestors moved around all and every day, hunting or foraging. Each carried many search images necessary to their activity. The hunters sought tracks, droppings and the rubbings of prey animals. Their female gatherers knew the images of hundreds of edible plants or small animals and the sort of evidence of their presence. Effective search images kept our ancestors well fed for millions of years. When they created stone tools, suitable stones and rocks for making tools entered the search images of these foragers. Every likely stone was picked up and examined before the decision to discard or keep it.
I suspect that this inherited search image talent has been built into modern shop design. We wander through supermarkets or department stores, aware and monitoring with our search images to do our shopping, always alerting to anything that provides an OR, and a decision to discard or purchase.
To me, so much of our human minds was designed in animals. I have never worried about gods or god stories for the last seventy years. Yet I knew all these religion stories of our origin and I have learned much about an alternative set of stories, evolution. My stories still provide no information of gods and their hundred forms of magic, of creating us in their image, monitoring our guilts or virtues, keeping log books of our suitability for entrance to heaven. But they do provide real evidence that we were created by natural selection, always shaping and reshaping our minds and bodies. My stories completely turn the stories of our creation by magic into beautiful myths.
The stories arose in the minds of people who really had no information on which to create any realistic stories of their origins. Their knowledge of their world was built on their need to thrive, and to survive. Gods were made by hunter-gatherers who were dependent on what they could find if they were to thrive every day. They were subject to every force of climate or weather, of every unexpected raid by greedy neighbours. Gods provided stories to account for everything they then had no way of understanding. Certainly believing in mostly friendly gods gave them the security they expected in every part of their physical and societal worlds. They could thank their gods for every survival through the forces of nature or enemies, but the credit was always their own. Every improvement they and the communities they built, was seized by natural selection; it produced us. But they shaped the religions they produced into ways of thinking and living that became part of daily life, a cultural life within a warm and embracing community. It became part of the success of our species. We no longer need religion to maintain our societies, but it remains a powerful emotional need for most people, not easily rejected nor discarded. Time, information and education will eventually make religion unnecessary for perhaps most people; but never for all people.
- von Bertalanffy, L. 1950. An outline of general system theory. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 1, 134-165. doi.org/10.1093/bjps/1.2.134
2. Dennett, D. C. 1991. Consciousness Explained. Little, Brown, Boston.
3. Pavlov, I.P. 1927. Conditioned reflexes. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
4. McBride, G. 2012. Ethology, evolution, mind and consciousness. J. Conscious. Explor. Res. 3, 830– 840.
Photo by Cristina Cerda on Unsplash