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Is the Human Brain Exapted for Insight?
By Martin LeFevre:
Dec 16, 2019, 5:09pm

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A friend and I from philosophy grad school days at the University of Oregon are exploring the question: Is the human brain exapted for insight?

'Exaptation' is a word coined in the early 1980's by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. It means "a trait, feature, or structure of an organism that takes on a function when none previously existed, or that differs from its original function which had been derived from evolution."

The quintessential example is bird feathers. The consensus of paleontologists is that feathers were not originally evolved for flight, but for temperature regulation in dinosaurs, and only later emerged in the reptilian ancestors of today's birds.

The idea of exaptation was proposed as an alternative to "pre-adaptation," since that term "implies that such traits, features or structures as feathers were destined for a future function."

In other words, exaptation does away with simplistic teleology, the human-projected need to see "intelligent design" in the evolution of vision, flight, or humankind's prodigious brain.

As my friend points out, on first reading my question appears too simple, implying "how nature plays out regardless of any actions or decisions performed by humans, so that the most we can do is anticipate it."

There is a great deal of subtlety enfolded within the question however. Things are so complex, especially where humans are concerned, that questions and lines of inquiry need to be kept simple.

Near the end of his life, Einstein was asked what question he would pursue if he had his life to live over again. He replied, "Is the universe friendly?"

I hear echoes in his question, levels of meaning and implication that point in the same direction. At one level, Einstein's question is the standard one of astronomers and astrobiologists: Is life unique to the earth, or is it intrinsic to cosmic evolution?

At a deeper level, it implies the question: Does the universe ineluctably give rise to potentially intelligent species such as Homo sapiens? And is consciousness an emergent phenomenon, or the underlying actuality of the cosmos, or both?

Dan felt that "the question as stated carries with it the problem of specifying something called 'insight' that the brain was not originally adapted for."

Specifying what insight is would make it another property of thought, which it isn't. In any case I don't feel it's accurate to speak of "what the human brain evolved for," only to be clear about what the human brain does that's different from other animals, including the smartest animals such as Orcas, crows, or bonobos.

Why don't we see our own "adaptive strategy?" Is it that thought cannot see itself?

But his point is well taken. Clearly the human brain has the capacity for insight. Most of the advances in science have been the result of scientists persistently questioning a phenomenon until they have an insight into it.

So what would be different about 'exaptation' for insight? Does it imply an explosion of insight, both in the individual, and in enough individuals to give rise to a revolution in consciousness?

Our distant ancestors obviously had many insights into animals and plants. That's how and why they survived, and we are here.

Is it that to this point, humans have had external insights, whether in the scientific age or during the long prehistoric times, but that we haven't had anywhere near sufficient insight into ourselves---into thought and consciousness?

There is a state of insight, which is not about anything, but occurs when psychological thought falls completely still. In that state the brain aligns with the order that permeates the universe.

Is the human brain exapted for that---a state of being beyond psychological noise and functional application? And why is it essential to awaken it at this time?

To this point in human evolution, the brain's capacity for insight has been appropriated by thought and reason for the purpose of accruing knowledge. A conscious exaptation for insight would mean that insight would take primacy over knowledge formation, much less experience.

Such a revolution in human evolution has become essential to our survival because thought has fragmented the Earth and humanity to the point of collapse. Insight flows from wholeness, and makes us whole.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.

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