Thursday, May 08, 2008

Charles Darwin and the Evolution of the Human Mind

A cool article from The Secular Web (Internet Infidels, Inc.). The article looks at the seldom mentioned book by Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man. You can download an e-book version of this classic from Project Gutenberg.

Charles Darwin and the Evolution of the Human Mind

Dr. Khalid Sohail

Charles Darwin, a great biologist and philosopher, offered a scientific and secular explanation of the process of human evolution and challenged the traditional religious beliefs of his time. His ideas were so provocative that they were either completely rejected or seriously challenged by the clergy, the traditional organizations, and the conservative institutions of the nineteenth century. While Darwin's admirers and followers got involved in bitter public debates with the representatives of the church, Darwin quietly did his scientific work and continued to light the candles of science and reason in the dark alleys of blind faith.

In the last couple of centuries there has been an increasing awareness of his biological theories but still his psychological and sociological theories about human evolution have remained relatively unnoticed. Maybe that is why his book The Origin of Species, that focused on the biological dimension of evolution, is discussed far more than his book The Descent of Man.[1] The latter book, published in 1881, the year before his death, discussed his psychosocial theories of evolution.

As a student of human psychology and a practicing psychotherapist, I am amazed at the insights Darwin had about the evolution of the human mind. He wanted to show that the human brain, like the human body, had also evolved from the lower animals, and that the observations of animal behavior can help us understand the similarities and differences between human and animal minds, especially those of mammals. While comparing humans to animals Darwin shared his observation that "the embryo of man closely resembles that of other mammals" (Descent, p. 9) that is why when we compare the human body with the bodies of animals we see striking similarities. Since the brain is one of the bodily organs, the human brain is in many ways similar to the brains of mammals. Quoting Bischoff,[2] Darwin stated, "the convolutions of the brain in a human fetus at the end of the seventh month reach about the same stage of development as in a baboon when adult." (Descent, p. 11) Because of such similarities humans share many mental functions with animals.

Darwin's theory brought to the surface the hidden conflicts between religious, spiritual and secular traditions, and started a passionate public dialogue that is still going on between religious and secular circles. Darwin tried to prove that humans are risen apes rather than fallen angels. He inspired us to review our understanding of the human brain and mind.

There was a time when the human psyche was believed to be the soul. Religious people believed that the soul was independent and existed prior to the existence of the body. It entered the human fetus at a certain stage of development, stayed in the body throughout life, and left at the time of death to go back to the world of souls so that it could be judged on the Day of Judgment, thereby entering hell or heaven depending on its good and bad deeds. Such a concept of soul was predominant in Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities.

Alongside this "Juda-o-Christian-o-Islamic" belief in soul, there were many Hindus who followed the tradition of reincarnation and believed that the human soul returned to earth again and again to purify itself, and acquire a higher or lower level of existence depending upon good and bad deeds, the karma of the previous incarnation. This cycle of existence and suffering continued until the soul acquired enlightenment and found nirvana, and then transcended the cycle of suffering by joining the Ultimate Soul, God. After acquiring nirvana, the soul found eternal life and did not have to return to earth for any more suffering.

In these models, religious as well as spiritual, there was a desire, a wish, a hope, and a dream, for humans to have eternal life and live forever. Since the human body was mortal, human beings believed in the immortal soul, and connected that belief with the belief of an immortal and eternal God.

Darwin's theory presented a secular model. Followers of such a model call the psyche, "mind," not "soul." In this model, the mind is intimately connected with the body and does not exist independent of the body. It is an extension of the body, related to the functioning of the brain, and is connected with the human personality that makes choices about the human lifestyle. Secular psychologists and psychiatrists now believe that the human mind and its illnesses can be understood in the light of the dynamic interaction between biological, psychological and social factors.

Read the rest of this excellent article.

Evolutionary psychology is an emerging field, but one seldom sees Darwin cited as a source of their ideas. I wonder how many people in the field have read The Descent of Man.

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