I’ve done a lot of thinking on these two ideas over the last year or so. The western world seems rather divided right now.. democrats vs. republicans.. liberals vs. conservatives.. blue vs. red.. left vs. right. When you consider how much these individuals agree on, the division seems rather silly. Yet it persists. I have no doubt that the existing political system and those within it perpetuate this division for their own gain, but there’s something more to it than that. They didn’t create that division, they’re just the ones exploiting it. There’s something that exists beneath that.. something biological.
I wrote an entry a while back on thought vs. emotion. Introspectively, I could tell that they were two different cognitive processes within my brain. It led me to suspect that they had different roles within the human experience. I understood that you couldn’t use emotion to do things like solve math problems or learn languages. I also understood that happiness wasn’t a logical thought. Seemed rather likely that the thoughtful part of the brain would pursue happiness while the emotional part of the brain allowed you to enjoy it.
Ironically, a few months later, a friend gave me a book for my birthday that discussed this topic. The book, A General Thoery of Love, was written by a small team of MDs and PhDs in clinical psychology. To my surprise, the authors were big fans of poetry, love, their families, and all the other soft stuff you might not associate with a scientific mind. I must say it was done quite well and taught me a great deal about how the mind works.
One of my biggest takeaways was how obvious evolution was in determining the fundamental structure of the human brain. The base of our brain is referred to as the reptilian brain and controls things like your vitals and balance. This also represents our most base instincts.. things relating to survival like the 4 Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and… reproduction. What the reptile brain seems to lack though is any sense of compassion. I was rather surprised to find out that reptiles are known to eat their young. Apparently the part of the brain that tells us to be kind to our kin didn’t come until afterwards.
After the reptile brain came the limbic brain. It’s likely that this evolution occurred during the early evolution of mammals. The theory is that when life made the jump from laying eggs to carrying their young, the brain needed to adapt appropriately. Mammals were taking a different approach to survival, one which required them to care for their young until they were capable of fending for themselves. They needed a way to communicate. They needed to develop a language. Enter the limbic brain, the emotional center of the human brain today. The limbic brain was one of facial expressions, touch, sound, and all these other little nuances that allowed mammals to instinctively understand how one another felt. Not a language in the classic sense, but very much a language nonetheless.
The most recent evolution of the brain is the neocortex. It would be convenient to say that that the neocortex is unique to humans but it isn’t. It’s present in great apes, dolphins, elephants, and most other mammals. What seems to makes humans different is how much of brain’s mass is dedicated to the neocortex and the size of our brain relative to the size of our bodies. As one might guess, this is the part of the brain is responsible for what we typically consider to be human intelligence: logic, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness.
Effectively, through millions upon millions of years of evolution, our brain has equipped itself for survival, compassion, and intelligence. In that order. And yet the vast majority of the human brain is dedicated to its most recent addition: intelligence. That evolution has happened rather quickly considering how long it took for the other parts of the brain to develop. Nature rarely does anything by mistake.
I’m grateful for having learned all this because it’s given me a rather useful insight into the difference between thought and emotion. It’s also shown me how little the general public seems to understand or appreciate how the brain works. How often will someone talk about how they feel towards something when they’re actually thinking about it? How often will someone claim to be using their feelings to navigate something abstract? How often are we asked how we feel when we should be asked what we think? I suspect there’s something worth observing here.
As someone who prioritizes thoughtfulness, logic, and truth, I’m probably more easily frustrated by this dynamic than others. As a result, I’ve been thinking about it a fair bit and have noticed something worth sharing. Throughout the course of recorded history, I’ve noticed a shift from emotional to intelligent. I’m unsure if it’s a result of an ongoing biological evolution in the brain, or a gradual appreciation for what intelligence allows us to do. Realistically, it’s probably both. If I were to guess, natural selection favors intelligence.
Religion might be the easiest example here. Religion has existed in some shape or form for about as long as human civilization. Our brains are programmed to identify patterns, and once we do, we can’t help but use our imaginations to assign meaning to them. As soon as we were able to recognize the significance of things like the sun and stars, we couldn’t help but try to tie them into one grand narrative. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why religion is such a complex topic.. perhaps in some way, it serves as a chronology of intelligence vs. compassion.
There was a point where religion was about community and worship.. this general idea that if you were kind and compassionate to each other, your god would be kind and compassionate to you. Over time, intelligence allowed us to realize that if we were kind and compassionate to each other, that was probably all we needed. In that time, god went from an individual who was supposed to be loved or feared, to something much more abstract. Since then, religion has become less about worship and more about philosophical teachings relating to morality. Unfortunately for these religions, they often attributed their teachings to the word of god rather than what they most likely were: a reflection of how humanity understood morality at that point in history. As a result, we were put in a position where humanity’s collective understanding of morality was evolving and god’s wasn’t. How could that be. Something wasn’t right.
As the centuries went by, the intellectual crowd kept coming up with better and better reasons to stray from religion. The politics, the corruption, the lack of evidence, the logical fallacies, the tribalism… it just looked like a big pile of nope. Even the renaiisance experienced a big shift from religion to the sciences. And now, in the 21st century, religion looks to be as irrelevant as ever. The world’s brightest minds are notoriously non-religious. The vast majority of people STEM careers are non-religious. The vast majority of business and industry leaders are non-religious. The vast majority of recognized philosophers are non-religious. The only leaders that I can think of who tend to be religious are political leaders. As their actions tend to show, it’s a function of votes and job security more than loyalty to the cause.
The better we get at using the intelligent part of our brain, the better we get at discerning the difference between real and not real. As we get better at discerning between real and not real, truth and reality become increasingly important to us. As truth and reality become increasing important to us, the fictions of religion becomes much less attractive. While I think this movement away from religion is justified if not an essential part of our evolution, we should be mindful not to throw away the baby with the bath water. Religion was among the first establishments to champion the ideas of kindness, community, and morality. Those ideas are worth bringing with us to where ever we go next.
When I think about where we are now and where we go next, I can’t help but think that computers are rather central to the conversation. When I think about how computers were designed from the beginning, I can’t help but think that they were designed as an extension of our neocortex. Computers are logical by nature. If a program has a line of code which contains a logical fallacy, it creates an error. And while our computers inch towards levels of artificial intelligence that rival our own, there’s an obvious absence of emotion or survival instincts. This idea that one of humanity’s most significant creations is an extension of one of our most significant evolutionary advantages…. doesn’t strike me as a coincidence.
I’ve been thinking about writing a book for a couple year now. It’s working title is the Vulcan Republic. The idea is a mash-up between Plato’s Republic and the Vulcan philosophies from Star Trek. One takes place in the past, using logic in search of how one would create a Utopian society. The other takes place in the future where a species just like humanity embraced logic and created that utopia. Considering the path that we’ve taken over the course of our evolution, is this so unlikely? Is it so far fetched that intelligence is our guiding star?
MBTI helped me understand how strong the division is between thinkers and feelers. I know this all too well as the feelers tend to get upset with me for thinking too much and feeling too little. But then I ask them why I should feel more and think less, and they don’t have a reason. They just feel that way. As it turns out, the part of the brain that knows why things happen is the thinking part. And unfortunately for me, there are statistically more feelers than thinkers. But I suspect this is changing. I suspect that every generation, on average, has been more thoughtful than their parents’ generation. I expect that computers will help kids to learn and embrace logic faster that previous generations. I expect that the kids growing up today will respond to the highly emotional conversations around current events by learning to be more thoughtful and sensible in the way they discuss ideas with one another.
That’s a future that excites me. But it doesn’t excite everyone. The more emotional crowd aren’t always the biggest fan of computers, logic, or intelligence. I’m often faced with situations where they consider these things to be threatening. They’ll use words like empty, cold, or robotic. They seem to assume that intelligence and compassion are binary, that it’s one or the other. To that point, I think they’re wrong. I think that we could all be reminded of a simple truth: The most intelligent decision someone can make is a compassionate decision, and the most compassionate decision someone can make is an intelligent decision.
Intelligence and compassion tend to operate like a map and compass. Intelligence is a tool that helps you read the terrain and understand the most effective way to move from point A to point B. Compassion is like a compass which might not tell you much about where you are or how to get to where you want to go, but it’ll always give you a sense of direction. Too often, people will lead with unintelligent compassion, resulting in good intentions but progress in the wrong direction. Watching the social justice warriors embolden the conservative crowd reminded me of this. But at the same time, there are those who lead with intelligence and a lack of compassion which lead to productive actions which are counter-productive to humanity’s collective goals. You don’t have to look much further than Thanos or any bond villain to see how that plays out. I suspect that for real progress, we need to embrace both, and understand that when we are at our best, they are one and the same.
Nature rarely does anything by mistake… Survive. Be compassionate. Be intelligent.