“The [mental] system we recruited had the primary aim of reacting quickly to immediate danger—those who did lived long enough to produce us.”


Robert Ornstein

The mind is a squadron of simpletons. It is not unified, it is not rational, it is not well designed—or designed at all. It just happened, an accumulation of innovations of the organisms that lived before us. The mind evolved, through countless animals and through countless worlds.

Like the rest of biological evolution, the human mind is a collage of adaptations (the propensity to do the right thing) to different situations. Our thought is a pack of fixed routines—simpletons. We need them. It is vital to find the right food at the right time, to mate well, to generate children, to avoid marauders, to respond to emergency quickly. Mental routines to do so have evolved over millions of years and developed in different periods in our evolution, as Rumi noted.

We don't think of ourselves as of such humble origins. The triumphs that have occurred in the short time since the Industrial Revolution have completely distorted our view of ourselves. Hence, the celebrated triumph of humanity is its rationality: the ability to reason through events and act logically. to organize business. To plan for the future, to create science and technology. One influential philosopher, Daniel Dennet, wrote recently: "When a person falls short of perfect rationality ... there is no coherent ... description of the person's mental states."

Yet to characterize the mind as primarily rational is an injustice; it sells us short, it makes us misunderstand ourselves, it has perverted our understanding of our intelligence, our schooling, our physical and mental health. Holding up rationality, and its remorseless deliberation, as the model of the mind has, more important, set us along the wrong road to our future. Instead of the pinnacle, rationality is just one small ability in a compound of possibilities.

The mind evolved great breadth, but it is shallow, for it performs quick and dirty sketches of the world. This rough-and-ready perception of reality enabled our ancestors to survive better. The mind did not evolve to know the world or to know ourselves. Simply speaking, there has never been, nor will there ever be, enough time to be truly rational.

Rationality is one component of the mind, but it is used rarely, and in a very limited area. Rationality is impossible anyway. There isn't time for the mind to go through the luxurious exercises of examining alternatives. Consider the standard way of examining evidence, the truth table, a checklist of information about whether propositions are correct or not. To know whether Aristotle is a hamburger, you would look up "Aristotle" or "hamburger" in this table. Now think of the number of issues you immediately know well—what Yugoslavia is, whether skateboards are used at formal dinners, how chicken sandwiches should taste, what your spouse wore this morning—and you will see that your own truth table, if entered randomly, would have millions of entries just waiting![p.p. 2-3]

A mind built up with countless specific adaptations can never be rational. We piece together the results of a small set of probes to judge the world, picking up a few signals and making quick assessments of what is outside, in the case of marauders, and inside, in the case of memories and dreams. Such a mind will never be rational; but it will always try to adapt. And it cannot always be correct either. If we consider a mind that has evolved to meet most situations adequately, say 95 percent of them, we may have a better idea of what being correct is. [p. 221]

Since the mind evolved to select a few signals and then dream up a semblance, whatever enters our consciousness is overemphasized. It does not matter how the information enters, whether via a television program, a newspaper story, a friend's conversation, a strong emotional reaction, a memory—all is overemphasized. We ignore other, more compelling evidence, overemphasizing and overgeneralizing from the information close at hand to produce a rough-and-ready realty. [p. 258]

The [mental] system we recruited had the primary aim of reacting quickly to immediate danger—those who did lived long enough to produce us. Those who acted more thoughtfully and with due deliberation of the proper course, who could avoid panic when confronted by mild threats—who acted rationally, that is—probably lived shorter, and thus less generative, lives. The survival argument against rationality in primeval conditions is that payoff is very lopsided: Fail to respond to a real danger, even if that danger would kill you only 1/10,000 as often, and you will be dead. A few years later, you will be deader in evolutionary terms, for fewer of your genes will be around. However, an overreaction to danger produces only a little hysteria, a little stress, and maybe a little embarrassment—probably little or no loss of reproductive ability. Maybe the excitement would even recruit a little more reproductive effort!

Running from every snake or tiger or loud noise probably doesn't disrupt life too much. Not running, while it might kill you only slightly more often, can eventually produce major changes in the population. The same numbers hold in this example as for the height difference cited earlier. If panic in response to a threat in all cases improved survival by even 1/10,000, those who panicked would be 484 million times more populous than those who did not. And so it was good to respond emotionally and quickly to the average dangers threatening most of our ancestors. Rationality is a great idea and ideal, but we never had the time for it; we don't have time for it now, and thus we don't have the mind for it. [p. 262]

THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS, Robert Ornstein; Prentice Hall, 1991, ISBN 0-13-587569-2