Does the Mind Evolve? We Argue It Does but Admit that More Than 2,000 Years After the Roman Gladiators, It Is Still More Likely to Beat Itself Up Than Lift Itself Up

A reader in the U.K. writes:

Dudley, I read The Mother of All Minds over the past week or so. Obviously it struck many chords with me. I share many of your observations and perhaps have experienced some similar experiences. I am not so sure about the evolutionary aspect of Mind, however. I often feel that there are competing operating systems in the world running in parallel. Some people are simply programmed using an entirely different language and logic. The really interesting thing of course is the ability to reprogram, upgrade or switch, if the desire is there and the tools are made available. So choice becomes the operative word.

“I choose to change” was once described to me by a clinical psychologist as the most critical statement that a person can make (my sister is manic depressive bipolar and I was working with her to try and change self-destructive behaviour). This is a powerful statement and has echoes of Nietzsche—another section that resonated with me in your book.

I have replied to this independently spirited individual privately. First, to thank him for taking the time to read my book. Secondly, to encourage him to read it again, this time aware of just how much his own “operating system” may have filtered what he gleaned from the book on its first reading. A gentleman and a serious scholar, he agreed to do so.

He and I are in agreement, I do believe, that “there are competing operating systems [of mind] in the world running in parallel.” I wrote about such systems repeatedly in The Mother of All Minds. But if these systems aren’t evolutionary in their development, then it is my suspicion that they stand in repudiation of evolutionary theory, which is going to be upsetting to many scientists (including, I think, my U.K. correspondent, who has a Ph.D. in biology, once he thinks it through).

If those of us who believe we see plentiful evidence of mind taking a Darwinian “descent with modification” path are right (including one of my mentors, the late Clare Graves, who bequeathed us a powerful model of evolving levels of human existence), then that is hopeful news. But not, as the world demonstrates minute by minute, news as hopeful as, well, as we would hope. Because the number of the planet’s citizens whose minds have grown increasingly more—how shall we say it?—at home with complexity, diversity and possibility appears to be greatly overshadowed by the number whose minds are stuck.

How else do you explain, for example, the rising popularity of the savage sport of so-called “mixed martial arts”? In a lengthy article Sunday, a Los Angeles Times reporter described how “a spectacle melding ancient fighting tactics with those of a bar brawl” is poised to go mainstream as a new American economic and culture force.

The roots of the “sport” are traced to a Victorville, CA, seafood restaurant owner’s practice in the early 1990s of closing his establishment at 10 p.m. and then going at his employees and remaining patrons. He told the Times reporter: “I beat the hell out of them.” The resulting activity is also called “human cockfighting,” “extreme fighting,” “cage fighting,” and “ultimate fighting.” Fueled by promoters and pay-per-view (usually $39.95 per fight) cable television, the Times article reports, this brutal melange is about to be exported to Canada, Mexico and Europe as America’s latest contribution to the world entertainment industry.

It is further evidence that the mind is its own worst enemy and obstacle to its own evolution that mixed martial arts is already being blamed for thousands of America’s teenagers mimicking such fights in backyards and parking lots and then posting videos of their mayhem on YouTube. One of its aficionados calls no-holds-barred and no-rules-enforced fighting “the sport for these times.” Blood, says the LA Times writer, is the new black.

If so (and who can argue with the new sport’s success?), then times are grim. And, of course, they are grim. The world is awash in violence caused by minds calibrated to make poor choices. No fight happens without someone making a bad choice. No war happens without someone—usually, a lot of someones—making bad choices. No sport this gratuitously brutal takes root and flowers unless large numbers of humans are making bad choices. No one celebrates and/or augments the gratuitous pain and injury of another if they have developed a mind capable of making good choices.

Yes, I think the evidence is good at this point that the mind evolves. I read the evidence as suggesting that it generally evolves in predictable, increasingly understood stages.

But I don’t see most minds alive today evolving at nearly the speeds needed to equip their users with good choice-making skills. And I don’t see enough minds evolving to the extent that we can hope to avoid more 9/11s. More Iraqs. More Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. More Darfurs. More drive-by shootings. More made-for-YouTube backyard human cock fights. Or the runaway growth and popularity of a sporting event that brags about its savagery and tendency to make boxing look tame.

In 2,000 years, in its best moments, the human mind has evolved to the point where it has taken an almost universal stand against slavery, outlawed racism as an unseemly and unacceptable social attitude, steadily increased its questioning of war as a rational approach to problem-solving, activated sensibilities within itself to identify with the pain of most any pain-experiencing creature, questioned the global consequences of its own actions and routinely come to examine about what is desirable for the greater good of the greater number for the most foreseeable future possible.

Also in 2,000 years, the minds you often rub elbows, eyeballs or electrons with on the street, in the workplace, on the Internet, on the TV or computer or game console screen, maybe even at the dinner table, have evolved no farther that the gladiator’s fighting pit.

My valued reader in the U.K and I are fully in agreement on this point: the way upward on the mind’s evolutionary journey is a willful one. You go higher by making good choices. Providing humans with supportive environmental encouragement and critical thinking skills for making good choices can work wonders in speeding the evolution of a single mind. But can it ever be done so as to get a critical mass of human minds to the point where the celebration of violence is automatically viewed as the atavistic and inane “choice” of partially and poorly formed personalities and mentalities?

We do seem to have a long way to go, and few really good ideas as yet on how to get there. One small step that any of us can take to encourage further evolution of the human mind in an evolving number of humans is act to choke off the feed stocks of violence. You and I can help do it with our vote. We can do it with how we spend our dollars. We can do it by how we spend our time. We can do it with what we allow to be aired on our TV or computer screens. We can do it with our musical selections. We can do it with the toys and games and other entertainment we choose for our children and grandchildren. There are many ways to do it. But violence is so pervasive and so elemental in today’s money-is-the-guiding-ethic global market economy and thoughtlessness-is-the-preferred-state-of-mind entertainment environment that we have to choose not to augment violence or it will sneak right past us.

Read Scott Gold’s Los Angeles Times article here [may require registration]: Knockout marketing

For more information about my book, go here: The Mother of All Minds

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