The Darwinian unconscious

As I said in my last post, we’re not the angelic robots that E.O. Wilson says the ants are, and we wouldn’t want to be. We’ve evolved to be flexible in our behavior (compared to creatures that operate mostly or entirely on instinct). We experience this flexibility as free will, which we value very highly (although maybe we don’t possess it to the degree we think we do, but that’s another story).

In his talk at the Consilience Conference, Michael Rose laid out an evolutionary argument for limits on our free will; he sees these evolved limits as closely related to religion. (Rose, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, mostly researches and writes about aging.) What follows is based both on his presentation at the conference and on a paper he co-wrote with John Phelan, Gods Inside, for the book Voices of Disbelief, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk.

Rose began his talk with a brief discussion of evolutionary game strategies and rules that guide social interactions in many animals. Human behavior can be more complex than that of other animals because of our big brains, which seem to have evolved under selection pressure to achieve both technical and social intelligence (neither one alone explains all that we know so far about human evolution). With the big brain comes considerable flexibility in how we respond to our environment; we’re not programmed to always produce certain strategies in response to certain stimuli. However, untrammeled flexibility and free will would be “a disaster”; something must stop us from using it to consistently and generally behave in ways that run counter to our own fitness.

What is this something? In his talk, Rose called it the Darwinian unconscious and locates it in the prefrontal cortex. It considers the possible outcomes of various behaviors and calculates the most advantageous one in terms of our Darwinian fitness, mostly or entirely outside of conscious awareness. The results of the calculation are then communicated to the conscious self. In the paper, he and Phelan refer to this calculator as an endogenous god.

So basically the Darwinian unconscious is a brain function that evolved to reconcile our tremendous behavioral plasticity (free will) and the need to pursue behaviors that enhance our fitness. Sometimes you can learn a lot about a brain function by looking at people in whom it is damaged or absent (for example, Oliver Sacks has taught us plenty about normal brain functioning by looking at brains damaged by stroke or trauma).

Similarly, we can learn about our inner gods by observing the brains and behavior of those who are born without them or who lose them for some reason. The former includes those with antisocial personality disorder, who make up a small percentage of the population but commit a large proportion of the crimes. Probably the most famous person in the latter category is Phineas Gage, a railroad worker in the 19th century who survived the passage of an iron bar through his brain (primarily his left frontal lobe) but was a different person afterward: irresponsible, irresolute, and profane. Studying these two classes of people suggests a fairly well-defined substrate in the brain on which the Darwinian unconscious is built.

But what does it feel like to have this thing? Rose suggests that the Darwinian unconscious is, in effect, a presence in our brains, an other that some of us, some of the time, are subjectively aware of. Extreme circumstances (altered states of consciousness brought about by drugs or psychosis, or physical stresses like starvation) can break down the barrier that keeps us unaware of this unconscious processing, and the brain can see its own internal god. Rose and Phelan say that while our subjective selves, the identities that we experience, control our actions, these gods within give our lives “coherence and direction.” They are also the source of our religious behavior:

“Our interpretation is that conventional religious experience revolves around the culture-dependent interaction between the god-function located in our frontal lobes and the conscious portions of the cerebral cortex.”

Furthermore, they compare the urge for religion to the sex drive, which produces a wide range of behaviors, only some of which have much to do the original evolutionary goal of reproduction. Rose closed his talk by posing a question: are religious practices functional (that is, do they usefully enhance our lives by helping us to deal with this other in our brains?), or are they con jobs, exploiting our wish for a better relationship with the other? And there I will also leave it as an exercise for the reader. I’m still chewing over this one myself.

Postscript: I should clarify that regardless of whether I find Rose and Phelan’s explanation for the origin of religious behavior compelling, I do agree with the idea that religious feelings and actions arise from our brains and our culture, not from contact with any supernatural entity. Certainly it’s a mistake to accept the literal truth of stories about supernatural or universal beings that everyone must accept and obey or risk eternal punishment, or to try to control other people’s behavior (much less kill or persecute other people) solely on the basis of these “gods within” and the interpretation of what they supposedly want. Whether religion has potential as a human institution whose purpose is widely acknowledged to be the improvement of people’s lives on human terms (i.e., physically and emotionally, in the here and now), I can’t say. My experience inclines me to be pessimistic.


  1. I find religion interesting, relative to how what people think god is. In alot of instances those who consider themselves religious do not consider what god is, philosophy outside their religion or the history of their religion I’m thinking mostly Christanity on this one), but depend on dogma.
    For the most part people are mental prisoners of their upbringing and culture and grasp for ideas that reinforce current beliefs.

  2. Mental prisoners, that’s a good way to put it. Everybody’s subject to things like confirmation bias (looking for evidence to support your point and ignoring contradictory evidence), but people can learn to think more critically and look beyond their biases. What’s frustrating and sad about religious belief is that children are taught not to think for themselves because faith is supposedly a virtue; that’s the worst kind of mental prison because kids are taught that they’re bad if they want to get out. Luckily people do get out, but I think life would be so much better for everyone if so many children were not taught at a young age that it’s good to believe without evidence, or even despite the evidence.

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