The University of Washington Tacoma,
Institute of Technology
Part 5. The Evolution of Sapience
“Do not go gentle into that good night.”
The Emergence and Development of Sapience
The story of sapience and its conjoined twin, 2½-order consciousness (awareness of being aware), is told in the evolution of hierarchical cybernetics, both within the individual human brain and in the societal matrix in which humans operate. It is the emergence of elaborated strategic management of the self, coordination management (tactical and logistical) in the social group, and the beginning of strategic management for the group in which we see the nature of wisdom and its relevance to human success in evolutionary terms. However, humanity finds itself in an awkward adolescence of consciousness. We have emerged from ape-hood as beings with superior future-thinking, mental models of both ourselves and others, and the language facility to share abstractions among ourselves. But we are not fully mature sapient adults, on average. As a species, on average, we appear to be only somewhat sapient. The capacity of the brain to build wisdom over ones life is newly emergent and underdeveloped. I suspect the story of our species' evolution has more chapters to open.
In this final installment I want to consider that story in terms of the evolution of sapience in our genus, Homo, its current status with respect to the degree to which it is expressed in modern populations, and its future potential as the next stage in human evolution. This is a hard story to tell. I often wonder if we have the courage to face up to our weaknesses as implied — that we are not currently sufficiently sapient in light of the problems we need to solve. As I asked at the very beginning, why haven't we developed a more perfect world? Indeed why is our world undergoing degradation as a result of our foibles? The answer should now be clear. As sapient as we are, it just isn't enough to allow the development of global-scale wisdom in a sufficient number of people that are in positions of authority so as to effect the needed changes. We have reached a fundamental threshold for testing sentience on our planet. Enrico Fermi asked a very relevant question, now called the Fermi Paradox. He was puzzled by the accumulating evidence, from evolution theory, that life would actually be a common phenomenon in the Universe. Alan Drake proposed a theoretical model, the Drake equation, which indicated that, given certain not-unreasonable assumptions, intelligent life should be more abundant in the galaxy. Fermi asked, if this were the case, why haven't we seen evidence of this? Our Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has yet to uncover any indications that there are other sentient beings with advanced communications or travel technologies out there in the galaxy. Why not?
One very obvious answer to Fermi's paradox is that extraterrestrials are hiding from us! Another is that Drake's approach was misleading and that there really isn't much if any life out there in the universe. But another, scarrier solution to Fermi's paradox is that intelligent life reaches a point at which it cannot sustain itself because it has created an overly complex society without adequate sapience to guide further development. Indeed, Drake's equation includes an estimate of how many civilizations might actually succumb to their own cleverness. What if the answer were ‘most’? Is this the possible fate of humanity on this planet? Put very simply, what if we are too clever for our own good?
Is this some kind of universal fitness test? Are we facing such a test? If so, will we prove worthy of continuation into the future of our planet? These are very likely questions that we cannot ignore.
Evolution and Hierarchical Cybernetic Systems
Simple systems have a way of developing into complex ones. This has been true for life on Earth, it is true for human organizations, and it is true for human minds. As these systems age they gain more structure and function as well as more knowledge. Yet, at some point, the complexity threatens to overcome whatever benefits have accrued from gaining it. Complexity solves certain problems, but it also creates new problems. Specifically, when the number of active components exceeds some threshold, the communications and interactions become burdens on the components and the system's overall organization and function is compromised. There is a law of diminishing returns that applies to increasing complexity and that law can be seen in action throughout nature's systems.
Living systems were once just single celled bacteria-like organisms, living happily in the primordial seas. Somewhere along the line some of these organisms linked up through symbiosis to form more complex eukaryotic cells, single celled animals and plants. After a very long time, aggregates of such cells began to form and certain cells in the aggregates took on specialized functions. In particular, some became germ cells, able to carry on reproduction, and the rest became somatic cells, responsible for feeding and nurturing the germ cells. The evolution of life is a story of on-going increases in complexity in response to environmental selection forces and opportunities to exploit the free energies available in the environment. How living systems have managed to evolve more complexity without suffering the consequences of diminishing returns on that complexity is, itself an extremely interesting story. Would that we had time and space to get into it.
The bottom line on how life has evolved without running into the limits of complexity is simply the tendency to orgainze its structures according to the principles of hierarchical cybernetics. Once nervous systems in animals appeared, especially with actual brains instead of bunches of neuronal ganglii, evolution of behavior came under the same laws of organization. The brain is a hierarchical cybernetic system. And in humans it has become the epitome of that model. The operational level is largely handled by the brain stem and endocrine systems, the logistical/tactical (coordination) level is handled by the limbic system and paleocortex (in early mammals, augmented later by the neocortex), and the strategic level is handled by the frontal lobes (specifically the prefrontal cortex). It turns out, however, that the society of humans as an emergent system has its own form of hierarchical cybernetic organization. This system arises from the ways in which humans interact with one another in familial and neighbor relations where cooperation (altruism) and competition (power) act to provide coordination for the group. It also involves strategic decisions regarding the group's situation in the larger environment and especially with respect to other groups.
Figure 1. The evolution of hierarchical control at both the individual level and that of the group. As group sizes get larger, more coordination and long-term planning are involved in maintaining group cohesion and success in surviving. Individuals evolved to have greater strategic capacity with respect to their own lives within the community. But some individuals, representing the higher end of the sapience distribution, could function as strategic thinkers for the group as a whole. Likewise, some individuals may specialize in tactical management (lead hunting parties) and others specialize in logistical management (making sure there are enough arrows and bows, etc.).
The capacity for wisdom arose in this recursive, self-similar framework of individual expansion of judgment coupled with the dynamics and cohesion of groups in which individuals lived. Sapience and group management co-evolved in that one spurred the other and vice versa. Language, too, evolved in this framework, being essential for sophisticated communications between control specialists needed for a distributed hierarchical system to work.
Key individuals who showed particular strength in strategic thinking could assume the duties of doing such thinking (as in Figure 1), or at least influencing the group thinking, for the group as a whole. The success of such individuals rested on their ability to understand the external environment, including other groups, and understanding one's own group members and their capabilities. Providing guidance for the group's long-range activities, such as where and when to plant seed or hunt, etc. based on a lifetime of accumulated tacit and explicit knowledge would set such individuals apart, with others in the group looking up to them as wise elders.
But this is the picture that probably held toward the end of the Pleistocene when humans were just starting to live in larger extended families and groups containing non-related individuals. What got human evolution going in this direction and led eventually to the emergence of hierarchical management of the group was something more fundamental. It was tied to the reproductive success of early hominins which took several interesting turns. And one of those turns probably got initiated much further back in hominid evolution.
Of Grandmothers and Wisdom
Sometime long ago, perhaps before the human line and the chimpanzee/bonobo lines split, child rearing among apes underwent an interesting expansion such that other related females, in an extended family framework, began to assist mothers. Several related changes in family life among the apes that would eventually give rise to humans were under way as well. First the life span of the animals got longer such that several generations were living, and even breeding, at the same time. But time between pregnancies became extended as well, fewer offspring over time, and tribal living with social dynamics mediating interpersonal relationships emerged. There is an intriguing hypothesis that grandmothers, who were living longer and had personal relations with their daughters and their daughters' young, began to assist directly in the day-to-day care of the young. The evolutionary advantage of this arrangement was that mothers were better able to scavenge for food than the older, presumably more sedentary, females and could better support the group effort in finding resources.
Somewhat later in human evolution older females lost the ability to reproduce (menopause) yet were still able to care for young children. This may have been an entrenchment of the extended family view above, but something else was occurring in the reproductive habits in the human line that were not seen in the other apes. Namely fathers were investing in care for the young as well. The act of mating carried with it a commitment by fathers to support the family. This would seem to argue for a weakening of the grandmother-care requirement. But, I suspect, yet another factor was taking shape in human evolution that provided a strong selective advantage for grandmother, and grandfather, involvement in child rearing.
Human children were requiring much longer development times in order to learn more about their world to be successful adults. They did not require the coddling care of an infant, but did need something much more important for long-term success. They needed to gain knowledge of what had become a much richer and more complex world of social affairs and the environment around them. Grand parents, I submit, provided youngsters with extended education in intricacies that they had learned over their lifetimes. They provided cultural transference and wisdom.
And such learning extended well into reproductive adulthood. Learning included not just fact knowledge, but a tremendous amount of tacit knowledge about how other people work and think. It required learning how to plan for longer spans of time and to consider many variations on what the future might bring. It required drawing on the stored wisdom of the elders until such time as the individual amassed sufficient tacit knowledge to become one of those elders.
Sometime within the last several hundred thousand years the tiny patch of cortical tissue, right behind the eyebrows on the prefrontal cortex, expanded and developed to provide the processing capabilities for enhanced strategic thinking and interpretation of moral sentiments. I submit that so strong a selective advantage was this innovation for humans that it became the most rapidly evolved aspect of human mentation. Sapience, mediated primarily by this segment of the frontopolar prefrontal cortex, the area known as Brodmann area 10 (BA10), became a predominant factor in human success.
Co-evolution of Sapience, Second-order Consciousness, and Social Organization
The stage was set for an explosive development. Humans developed their modern form, complex language, abstract symbolism, awareness of being aware, and social behaviors in short order. That kind of rapid evolution must involve strong selective feedback loops in which each development dimension affected the others.
Second-order consciousness is the ability for the mind to observe and reflect on its own ability to be aware — awareness of awareness. It includes the ability to think about why one is thinking about some particular concept — to add meta-meaning. From a neuroscience standpoint this implies the addition of a new higher-order map to the existing consolidating maps of simple awareness. The frontal lobes receive inputs from every other part of the brain, suggesting that they consolidate state information continually. They put the big picture together, fusing sensory data with emotional data with motivational (drives) data, etc. And it is this map, using also data from the tacit knowledge stores, that makes the decisions about what actions to take. This map is semi-long-term in time scales of operation. It lays plans for the near term based on current situations and memories of prior similar situations, the actions taken, and their consequences.
This frontal cortex-based map (along with help from the anterior cingulate cortex) is the basis of primary consciousness — the ability to be aware of the environment and body states and react in a near-term purposeful way. But what the polar prefrontal cortex added, as it expanded in the human species, was a new meta-map. BA10 receives inputs from and provides outputs to all other areas of the frontal cortex as well as the limbic system. It appears to be the final convergence zone for all activity related to primary consciousness. But if primary consciousness is all that is needed to respond to the world and make minimal short-term plans, then what does this new facility add to our capacity?
The answer is long-term, moral (which is to say social cooperative) judgments, or sapience as I have been developing the concept in these papers. This patch of cortical tissue has access to all of the information that the brain produces, some directly from other frontal lobe areas and some limbic areas, and much indirectly from the other areas of the neocortex, paleocortex, limbic centers, cerebellum, and brain stem. These indirect signals are interpreted in those regions that communicate directly with the prefrontal cortex and so are not directly accessible to the meta-map. But their effects are. Could this be behind what we mean by the subconscious mind? The conscious mind is the first-order map of the rest of the prefrontal cortex. It processes the concepts that arise from the parietal/temporal lobes, unifying them and making sense out of them (both those arising in response to sensory inputs and those arising internally). It further unifies these 'thoughts' with 'feelings', our affective states of the limbic system. It, along with the assistance of the anterior cingulate cortex, processes the minute to minute, maybe hour to hour judgments that guide action planning. And that is what we share with all mammals, possibly birds, and especially our ape cousins.
Speaking of our ape cousins. They do have the beginnings of a frontopolar prefrontal cortex but it is proportionally quite small compared with humans. And it is now known that they have some facility, especially the chimpanzees and bonobos, at some forms of longer-term planning, that is strategic thinking. They plan, for example, raids on other troops. They organize to carry them out. But they don't come close to the type or extent of planning that humans do. Our BA10 cortex is twice as large proportionally to our cousins.
What prompted the expansion of the meta-mapping capabilities of the prefrontal cortex? The current consensus seems to be that the combination of complex social organization with its need for cooperation and occasional competition, bolstered by the family rearing arrangements of patriarchal commitment along with grand parenting, provided an enormous selective force to expand the planning capability in scope. In that expansion something wonderful happened.
Sapience, I have claimed, is a new brain function that integrates emotions, moral/social drives, intelligent decision making, and creativity. I think it does more than that. We humans are actually multiple personalities contained within one body. Sometimes we can be cool and rational. Other times we can be angry or sexually aroused and unable to think clearly. Sometimes we can be kind and other times we can be cruel. We are different people at different times and in different social circumstances. I suspect that what sapience is, is an evolved mechanism for attempting to integrate all of these various aspects of our selves into a coherent single entity in which the various mental forces can ebb and flow in a more or less cooperative, even unified, manner. The second-order map attempts to bring all of the other maps (intellect, emotions, etc.) together in a single framework.
BA10 receives inputs from all of the rest of the prefrontal cortex and innervates them in return. There is an on-going re-entrant loop formed between the first-order map and the second-order map. The latter becomes an observer of the former, watching the thinking take place, as it were. It is in a position to note longer-term results from thinking and acting and storing those in the storehouse of tacit knowledge. It is capable of long-term modeling of decision processes that can be called upon to make judgments not just about situations and actions, but about past judgments themselves. It does not make the decisions, nor even influence those decisions in real-time. It watches and remembers and guides the building of models of success and failure that can be used in the future. It becomes not just an observer of the environment, but an understander of what is going on in the environment, including the behaviors and motives of other agents of its own kind! It processes sapience.
Second-order consciousness is the result of the constant recurrent feedback between the second-order map and the first-order map (see Fig. 2 below). That feedback from the second-order map does not control or guide decisions directly, only through modification of the tacit knowledge base is this done. But the second-order map did develop a neat trick. In the interest of representation of situations and actions, it evolved the ability to drive premotor cortex area now known as Broca's area to generate a string of symbolic concepts — words with a syntax, language — that captured the on-going narrative of what was taking place in mind and the world. It learned to talk to itself about what the mind was thinking and doing and how the world was responding. And since this phonological loop already used some of the machinery of vocalization (motor) and audition (sensory) it probably wasn't a difficult leap to developing phonation and language understanding.
Figure 2. Recalling from Part 3, The Components of Sapience, second order consciousness, the awareness of being aware arises from the recurrent narrative (story) that flows between the first order map of the other parts of the prefrontal cortex and the newly and greatly expanded polar prefrontal cortex. Both the first order and second order prefrontal cortexes have access to affective information from the limbic centers and tacit knowledge stores. They also provide feedback control to modulate the former and guide construction of knowledge in the latter. What makes this possible is a very new map, within the second-order map, which I have designated as 2½ that expands the second order map considerably.
The reason language and consciousness are seen as mutually interdependent is because they are! Once the second-order map could observe and record what the mind was doing and generating a narrative of it, that narrative had no where to go except back to the second-order map by way of the first-order map. Humans not only talked to themselves, they also listened. And since the second-order map's job was to assess all actions and their long-term consequences (conceptual and emotional) the story became that of the on-going and future-going self.
The idea of a future self, and of making long-term plans based on that model, depends on another facility that speaks to the lateralization (specialization of hemispheres) of the frontal lobe and the prefrontal cortex. The right cortex seems to be involved in both recognition of novelty and with generating novel scenarios. In other words, the right hemisphere might be thought of as the site of imagination. The left hemisphere seems more concerned with routine or already learned judgments. Planning for the future, imagining ones self and others conditions in that future along with how the environment is possibly going to change may be mediated by the right frontopolar prefrontal cortex. Whereas, the routine of telling the on-going story of self may be the ken of the left side. This might explain why the left side of the brain is most often the side involved in speech production and understanding whereas the right hemisphere is often associated with intuitive and creative processes.
Why Sapience Strength is Probably Not Normally Distributed
The idea of sapience strength hinges on a concept similar to intelligence strength. Intelligence researchers often categorize intelligence into general (g) and specific (e.g. logico-mathematical). General intelligence is further categorized into fluid intelligence, which includes psychometric characteristics such as speed and retention of memories and recall, memory capacities such as that of working memory, and so on. Crystallized intelligence is essentially the knowledge base itself. How much can one demonstrate that one has learned. Psychologists attempt to assess the strength of several of these categories when measuring a generalized intelligence quotient (IQ). Sapience is using the same brain machinery as intelligence so it isn't completely odd to suggest that there is a similar set of measures of strength of that facility. For example, the idea that there is general and special forms of sapience is quite feasible.
And just as with intelligence, sapience is not uniformly distributed in the population. We now realize that intelligence (and creativity) take on characteristic distributions that appear to fit normal or near normal curves. How people come to have a specific IQ rating is still hotly debated, though the evidence strongly suggests it is very much a heritable trait (at least 50%). The rest might be influenced by environment (nurture). Nevertheless, measures of IQ show remarkable consistency in terms of the normal distribution (where the peak represents the mean and is arbitrarily assigned a value of 100, meaning that someone with an IQ of 100 is performing on tests at their age level).
I suspect sapience will prove to have a similar mix of nature and nurture. But I also suspect that sapience might not share the quality of normal distribution, however. We have to explain an observation from the modern world that seems to hold. Wisdom is not common. Sapience, in its capacity to produce wisdom, while clearly operative in some individuals, seems weak in most people in modern civilization. There are no data, of which I am aware, regarding relative sizes of BA10 from either anatomical (postmortem) or MRI studies but there seem to be a distinctly skewed aspect to the distribution of sapience in the population. The vast majority of people do not display strong capacity for good judgment and an ability to think ahead. Indeed, some psychologists have suggested that most people do not participate in self-reflection very often, the latter a result of second-order consciousness that is one of the attributes given to wise people.
This is, of course, an anecdotal observation, not a scientific one. But it could be worked into a testable hypothesis. There are psychological tests of judgment and even some purported tests of wisdom that might be used along with correlational studies of fMRI images of the prefrontal cortex. It would be interesting to see if BA10 shows any particularly strong activity with some of these tests. Then it would be interesting if there is sufficient image resolution to detect variations in the patch area activated. The hypothesis is that a majority of people will give poor judgments to particularly difficult moral judgment tests and that these will correlate with smaller patches of BA10.
Figure 3. Intelligence is distributed in a normal Gaussian form where the majority of people are toward the center of the distribution (mean ~ mode). For newly emerged attributes in evolution, there is a greater tendency for the population to cluster toward the weaker end of the scale, producing a highly skewed Gaussian-like curve. This is a hypothetical view of the distribution of sapience (compared with intelligence) in the extant population. Over a long enough period of time, with selection favoring stronger sapience, the bulge would be expected to migrate to the right and eventually come to look like the normal distribution for intelligence.
The superior sapients were the wisest men and women in the Late Pleistocene tribes. They were the ones who had the proclivity to think about the long-term, and think about the larger scale of the world, particularly about the surrounding tribes and their ‘personalities’. Strong or superior sapience appears to be rare in our species today. Early humans, in which sapience newly emerged, lived in small groups and there is now thought to be a basis for claiming that group selection was a strong force in shaping the social milieu of human culture. Groups that were lucky enough to have a few individuals with brain development genetics that favored greater expansion and development of the prefrontal area of the cortex and the other members of the group having just enough average sapience to be able to listen to those individuals tended to fare better than other groups. Thus sapience need not have been selected for within groups, but would have had a strong selection advantage between groups. Such selection skew would result in there being fewer individuals with the "right" genetic traits (see below) in larger merged populations, say after the advent of agriculture.
Why the Evolution of Sapience May Have Come to a Halt
While the distribution of sapience strength may have always been skewed, nevertheless the early socio-cultural/physical environment might have still provided selection pressures that would have tended to bring the average sapience upward just as it did for higher intelligence and creativity. Then, about ten thousand years before the present (BP) that superior intelligence found a new way to acquire food. And that one ‘technological’ invention changed everything.
With the advent of agriculture a new group selection pressure emerged that favored more intelligence and creative, along with more focus on power hierarchy and control. Planting and harvests needed to be managed and marauders fought off. The organization and management of agriculture demanded skills and thinking quite different from what had traditionally been considered wisdom. Once crops and animals had been domesticated, their care became more or less routinized. The need was to have a very large operational level control structure that would need more strict coordination, more emphasis on top-down command and control, and less strategic-level processing. The need for long-range thinking and planning diminished and with it, the favorable selection of greater sapience.
As civilizations evolved great emphasis was placed on ingenuity and invention for the purpose of exploiting natural resources. Humans, like all animals have built-in drives to take advantage of the good times (gorge themselves in times of plenty) in order to survive the inevitable bad times. But with the development of human cleverness and social organization, humans began to diminish the frequency and amplitude of the bad times. With the growing of grains and storage in granaries for supplies during the non-growing seasons or in droughts, humans learned to hedge against uncertainty and improved their reproductive fitness tremendously. Under these conditions, the need for really long-term planning was, surprisingly, minimized. The only real planning horizon that counted was the seasons of the year. Humans invented clocks and calendars to help them plan the activities associated with planting and harvesting. The level of sapience in the most sapient members of society were more than adequate for this activity. Sedentary lifestyles and increasing specialization in tool making and work greatly diminished whatever selection pressures had been pushing humans toward greater sapience. Emphasis on producing more product than was actually needed — profits — and trading that for niceties, if anything, established a selection pressure on greediness and diminished the selection of stronger moral sentiments toward sharing. Humans learned to seek expansion rather than contentment with the status quo. As civilization grew in size and complexity, the modern human mentality emerged without much room for increasing wisdom.
Rapid Evolution of the Prefrontal Cortex and Implications for the Future
Despite the diminishment of selection for greater sapience in the whole population due to the coevolution of culture and the mind, this has turned out to be a non-optimal situation. Man has been so clever and greedy and hooked on novelty seeking that he has created a world impossible for anyone to fully understand. Our culture and its institutions, inventions, and procedures, have taken on a life of its own. It has become an immensely complex system that contains individuals who are no longer able to grasp the meaning of the whole. And as a result we are making serious errors in judgments at all scopes. It seems to me, we have created a situation in which, once again, the selection for greater sapience is coming to the fore.
But how is this to be worked out in time to avoid the extinction of our kind due to our poor judgments? Natural selection, even group selection, might be too slow to produce results. Indeed, the problem is that the most sapient people on the planet have to outbreed the least. And there is no evidence that this is occurring. But there might be another option, which I outline below. What we have to recognize first is that a mechanism for rapid brain evolution is already in place.
One of the more interesting aspects of the evolution of the human brain is the rapidity with which the frontal cortex expanded relative to other cortical lobes, and the extremely rapid increase in size of the frontopolar prefrontal cortex in evolutionary terms. Humans became anatomically modern a mere two hundred thousand years ago (roughly) and mentally modern around one hundred thousand years ago or less. The rapid expansion of the BA10 and its influence on the other parts of the brain with which it communicates suggests something besides ordinary genetic mutation and selection as the underlying mechanism for this development.
In recent years a new understanding of the genome has emerged. This new picture does not regard protein-coding genes as the only form of inheritance (Jablonka & Lamb, 2005). Indeed, what used to be called 'junk' DNA is now being shown to include large numbers of segments that code for short RNAs, some of which play a role in gene expression regulation through epigenetic mechanisms. Some segments of DNA were already known to play a role in regulation of gene expression (switching on and off), but it has turned out that there is an elaborate network of regulatory segments that act as a kind of developmental program that is activated by and affected by elements in the environment. The new synthesis of embryonic development and evolution is called Evo-Devo. One of its principles is that various genes are turned on or off during development based on where in the embryo a particular cell sits. This is a solution to the problem of cell differentiation during development. Every cell in the body has the same complement of genes, but only certain ones are active in cells from different tissue types. It turns out that the timing of turning genes on or off has the effect of controlling the overall development process. It helps explain why species with very different morphologies actually have genetic complements that are fundamentally the same. Turning the same genes on or off at different times in the development program lead to different body forms. And in terms of brain development, different competencies.
This model resolves two puzzling problems that we have had ever since the human genome was decoded. First, how is it that humans only have about 30 thousand protein coding genes (some simpler organisms have many more!). This is considered a paucity of genetic material for specifying the complexities of the human brain. Second, why do the chimpanzees and humans share so much of their genomes in common, yet look and behave so differently? What Evo-Devo provides us with is a possible solution to these seeming problems. First it suggests that it isn't the proteins per se that are important in cell differentiation, but rather the timing of when and which ones are turned on or off. In other words, it is the control program embedded in the non-coding DNA that can make all the difference in the world. A slight change in a control circuit can have a drastic impact on form and function of cell types. Indeed whole new cell types might easily derive from existing ones with just very minor changes in one little piece of control DNA. Actually it is probably more the case that one little change can impact numerous cell types since the cells are using the same complement of proteins, but simply using them in different contexts and at different times during development.
This is essentially an amplified effect. A small change can have many separate impacts on the form and function of the whole system. It could also explain the apparent increase in speed of evolutionary changes, especially in the brain. Recent research on control segments responsible for brain cell development have shown that these regions have been undergoing extremely rapid evolution.
A key question, then, is this. Is there a small number of DNA segments that control the difference between levels of sapience in humans? The reason I focus on genetics rather than environment is that we already know that, while wisdom development is correlated with intelligence, and the latter is somewhat impacted developmentally by the child's environment, still we have the puzzle of having brilliant people who are terribly foolish. Ergo, while environment may play a larger role in the development of intelligence, I suspect it plays a much more minor role in the development of sapience. If it turns out that there is such a set of segments that regulate the timing of gene expression in, especially, Brodmann area 10 during development, then we may have found a leverage point for the future of evolution.
The Future of Sapience
Would Humans Be 'Better' With More Sapience?
These days there is much speculation about 'designer babies', where parents pre-select the genetic attributes of their to-be-conceived children. Talk revolves around improving attributes that parents would like their children to have, such as athletic build, and especially greater intelligence. The thinking driving the latter desire is based on believing that intelligence is the end-all and be-all of mental prowess. As I have been arguing throughout these working papers, intelligence and creativity are not the ultimate heights of human mentation. Sapience is what makes us uniquely human. It is true that we have greater intelligence and creativity as compared with our hominin cousins, but, as I have said, these are as much a part of the problem with the modern human condition as they are part of the potential solutions. I don't think we need more, smarter people to create more clever but ultimately ill advised stuff. What we need is better long-term, morally motivated judgment. What we need is better systemic understanding of the whole of the Ecos. What we need is more comprehensive strategic thinking for the world, not just our states or nations. In other words, if I could specify my designer baby, it would be to expand the capacity of the prefrontal cortex so that the child and later adult would develop wisdom over their lifetime.
Suppose sapience were distributed normally as is the case for intelligence. Further suppose that it had undergone a general strengthening under evolutionary selection pressures so that the average human being would develop what we today would easily recognize as real wisdom. Real wisdom is so rare today that when it is encountered it stands out starkly. But imagine that the average person, when older, exhibited such wisdom.
Furthermore, imagine that stronger sapience was active in developing youth and young adults. They would not have accumulated a lifetime's worth of tacit knowledge, though they might absorb by observation of the older adults behaviors, so they might not exhibit what we normally think of as wisdom, per se. But I rather suspect their tendency to make better judgments, and hence better decisions, would result in a very different set of attitudes and behaviors early in life. For one thing, I suspect that as in the days of the small tribes, the young would be more prone to attend to what the wise elders had to say. The youth would still make mistakes, of course, because they would still be motivated by primitive limbic impulses. And those impulses might not be completely controllable until the frontal cortex undergoes its later maturation, just as is the case now. Nevertheless, I suspect that overall, or on average, the more sapient youth would tend to show earlier signs of wisdom than anything we are used to today.
I would argue that life would be much different for a more strongly sapient society. I don't think they would be any less clever or inventive. But I do suspect they would think long and hard about the judiciousness of exploring inventions that were two edged swords. Atomic energy might be a good thing if carefully developed and managed. But atomic weaponry has proven to be one of our greatest blunders and haunts us to this day. Might a very sapient human have learned over life that every new invention carries with it one or more side effects with costs, some of which might not be payable? Might they then counsel caution in developing a technology that could lead to future destruction?
Finally, might not a population of higher sapient beings be inclined to employ sapient governance (see second series) in their economic and between-group affairs?
Will Nature Favor More Sapience?
We modern humans are actually not that far from some of what I have described in this series of papers. We are weak when it comes to judgments that integrate moral sentiments with strategic thinking, but we do have the beginnings of those capabilities. And some members of our species have demonstrated a greater capacity for doing so, implying that the underlying sapience — the brain mechanisms necessary — is represented in the gene pool. That is to say, the genetic basis for greater sapience very likely already exists in a few individuals now. If such individuals were to interbreed and the resulting genome breeds true in subsequent generations we could have the onset of an incipient new species of humans that displayed all of the traits I have described. So, in effect, the raw material is already here.
The problem is that there has to be some way for such individuals to find and recognize one another with a mating preference strongly attracting them to one another. This might take the form of sexual selection and there is actually some preliminary evidence that such selection is taking place now, but at a very diffuse level. Too, the nature of our modern (western) societies and cultural complexities make recognition a hit or miss proposition. Our tendency toward nuclear, mobile families rather than extended families with grand parents resident further weaken any of those former natural selection pressures described above.
It seems to me that the answer to the question is that nature, alone, will not provide the needed selection pressures in time to avert a total catastrophe to the human species. The race is just too fast.
As I have written several times in my blog, the evidence that human beings are headed for collapse is substantial (see "The End of Growth"). In a worst case scenario this leads to a complete collapse of not just civilization but a major population crash. Part of the problem stems from our running out of high grade fossil fuels and net energy to maintain our civilization. Part of it stems from the complications arising from drastic climate changes. The future looks dim for us and for a large percentage of other species as well. Should such a collapse occur, the question would then be what would nature favor in the survivors? After every major die-off, evolution produces an efflorescence of new species to fill empty eco niches. What niche would any human survivors fit into?
In an impoverished world such as is imagined an argument that our more bestial attributes will lead to more fitness than our higher mental capacities can be, and often is, made. Is this a valid assumption or just the result of too many Mad Max movies? The truth is we don't know and probably can't know what traits might be favored (or if any humans could survive at all).
But natural selection, sexual selection, etc. might not be the only routes to further evolution and some future speciation. Being the first species of animal to have understood evolution for what it is and how it works, we are in the unique position to engineer an intentional selection pressure that might just help bias future evolution in the direction of greater sapience.
Can We Humans Intervene To Force the Selection of Greater Sapience?
In a sense we already know how to breed plants and animals for qualities we favor. We act as the selection force and since we take measures to prevent breeding by non-conforming members of the population of interest, we accelerate the effects of genetic drift. We have already set up the conditions for speciation in, say, dogs. If we were to eliminate all other breeds of dogs except Chihuahuas and Great Danes we would have the necessary separation (through the sheer physical impossibilities of mating across the two breeds) for allopatric speciation to occur, given a bit more time. It wouldn't be hard to imagine a day when the two would not even recognize one another as conspecifics and only be interested in breeding within their kind (it would probably require changes in the pheromones that each exudes as well as the difference in size).
Most people don't care for the idea of breeding people, since it raises the specter of coercive eugenics and associations with Hitler's ideas of a master race. It would be good if people could remember that Hitler's and his minions' motives were strictly political and had nothing to do with science; they simply put their tactics under the veil of a scientific concept. Also, in the days when talk of breeding out unwanted traits (e.g. skin color among the Aborigines in Australia, the Stolen Generation) the whole idea of breeding human stocks took on a sinister aura. The real issues, of course, were the choices of what to breed for or against and who was making those choices. In suggesting that higher sapience is a positive, desirable quality, I am, naturally, making a similar subjective choice. But there is a huge difference. Everything that I have written here about sapience, its qualities, and how it is produced, is scientifically testable without any kind of coercive techniques. Plus I am not suggesting any kind of forced breeding program (and certainly NOT genetic engineering). Rather, what I am suggesting is an assist to assortative mating that will help concentrate the prospective high sapients within a region and then let nature take its course. Breeding will be voluntary and mutually-selecting. But first the science.
It does little good to only examine older individuals for traits of wisdom as a gauge of sapience strength. Women (crones) past menopause wouldn't be able to mate, and men sufficiently mature to exhibit wiseness would be less attractive to women in their prime (not to mention the possible need to stock the shelves with Viagra!) One could, of course, infer from wise behavior that the sage or crone possesses the right genes and so their offspring should as well. But there are several problems with this approach. For one, wise people these days tend to have fewer offspring because they have realized what is happening in the world due to overpopulation and/or thinking their offspring will have to pay the price for the foolish excesses of their own generation. A second problem is that there is no guarantee that offspring will actually carry the exact or even a partial complement of the right DNA. Everybody has two parents and in our society there is no guarantee that both will have the DNA needed. It would take many, many generations of intensive breeding of the offspring of the offspring before we would even begin to concentrate the needed DNA into a pool.
Fortunately, if my hypotheses are correct about the prefrontal cortex size and development owing to the 'right' DNA segments, then we have several methods at our disposal for working backwards from studies of wise behavior correlated with size, etc. of the prefrontal cortex. Research on the timing and activation of genes during development of the prefrontal cortex is currently underway. It is not a difficult step to take to sequence the DNA segments associated with both the genes themselves and the control network snippets mentioned earlier. We should be able to find markers (possibly several) that correlate highly with wise behavior in adults in later life! In other words, just as we do genetic testing today for disease potentials or risk factors for diseases, we could test a subject's DNA for the potential for high sapience. Then tell the subjects the results. Let them decide.
Along with this testing we would set up a 'sapient matching service' similar to on-line meeting services now. Counseling high testing sapients that they would be doing us all a service by having as many children as they wanted (and please out compete the low sapients if you can!) would help accelerate the accumulation of good DNA. Better still would be providing financial support for high sapient couples to raise really big families.
Unfortunately even this amount of assisted intentional selection might not be sufficient to make a difference. If there is a general population crash, as I suspect strongly will be the case, there would be no gain from assisting high sapients to meet and mate. But if there is a crash it also means that there will be an evolutionary or population bottleneck event as has apparently happened before. A prudent Plan B would be to not only assist high sapients in finding one another but also providing for a secure colony with all the necessary technology and energy supplies they would need to survive the event and emerge in the new world with some semblance of civilization (esp. knowledge of essential artifacts and processes). Such a breeding population, though small, would then be in a position to out compete any other surviving lower sapients, with the hope that they would generate the next incipient species of the genus Homo.
Of course nothing, no amount of planning, no high minded intentions, or anything else, could guarantee the success of such a program. There are no guarantees in nature except that you will eventually die one day. So too all species are guaranteed to go extinct eventually. Ours is no exception. But the extinction of one species does not need to mean the extinction of the whole genus. Our case is desperate. We are the only living species within our genus, and our genus is the only known one that has achieved second-order consciousness, complete with abstract symbol representation and manipulation for communication of complex ideas.
What a waste of potential and a shame it would be to simply stand by and let our species go extinct or worse yet, devolve into something we would consider sub-human. We would be demonstrating at least one answer to Fermi's Paradox. What if, throughout the galaxy hundreds, even millions of sentient beings faced this same threshold and failed to act. It would explain why we have no evidence of intelligence in the universe besides our selves. And whatever evidence we might have accounted for is about to be nullified.
I firmly think there is a real potential to achieve a higher level of sapience in our genus. We know there is because we have seen rare glimpses of individuals with the capacity to display real wisdom. The challenge facing mankind is to preserve that potential. Just as when each person realizes and accepts their own mortality and prepares for the well being of their progeny survivors, we as a species probably need to recognize and accept our collective mortality and make preparations for our survivors if there are to be any at all. Are we wise enough to do this?
 I am now rounding down, so to speak. Previously I made a point of calling the higher levels of judgment, sapience, 2½-order consciousness. That still holds. But for this discussion I have chosen to simply refer to second-order consciousness rather than the more cumbersom two and a half version. Perhaps had humans evolved to 2¾ I would have rounded up to third-order. But, alas, my whole argument is that we are not quite there yet.
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