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What we know, and don’t know, about the process of mate selection.
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Unless natural selection could explain such wonders it could not pretend to completeness. And if not complete, then not sufficient.


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The whole plan of the natural world depended on our shared mental history with the invertebrate world. Even Darwin had to admit that nature came closest to the mind of God in the form of instinct. Indeed, experimental examinations of insects represented a direct affront to claims about the divine quality of insect instincts. They challenged basic theological assumptions about free will, human origins, and special creation in a contest between two competing analogies of mind: one divine, the other human.

Were insects and other invertebrates windows onto the mind of God?

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Or did they illuminate the origins of mind in man? In the contest between these two analogies can be seen very clearly the theological obstacles to acceptance of his theory. But to Darwin, this perfection was not analogous to a higher order divine psychology—not, that is, to a more sophisticated God—but to the process of natural selection itself. The kinds of variations observed by Kirby and Spence allowed Darwin to develop a new analogy that would allow us to imagine how this otherwise unimaginable process could produce even the most refined instincts.

The only evidence for the evolution of instinct was to analogize from the present to the past: evidence of instincts in various stages of complexity in currently living species provided plausible analogies to stages of development in extinct forms. They offered imaginary evidence, or thought experiments, in how even the most complex behaviors might have evolved from less complex ones. In that chapter, both in abstract and in its longer form, Darwin confronted the question of the perfection of instincts, demonstrating in example after example—including many of those provided by Kirby and Spence—that instincts were neither perfect nor regular across a species: individual organisms frequently expressed instinctive behaviors in different ways.

Furthermore, individuals frequently made mistakes. Each insect, it seems, had its own interpretation of death. Furthermore, he found, bees frequently make mistakes in the construction of their wax cells: they often have to pull down their work and start again. Cell building is a process of trial and error and craftsmanship.

Analogizing from a present series of behaviors to a possible evolutionary genealogy, Darwin was able to show that instincts were subject to evolution in the same way that physiological structures were—that is, in incremental changes over long periods of time. And if it could be demonstrated that we share mental affinities with insects and other invertebrates, then mind and brain were not distinct but unified at the level of behavior, and a comparative invertebrate psychology with a firm basis in evolution would indeed be possible.

A couple of things are interesting about this passage. That is, intelligence might be an evolved behavior in the way that feigning death or cell-building are evolved behaviors.


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Given their radical physiological differences from us, invertebrates tended to raise these kinds of questions about the nature and the shared origins of mind. The comparison of intelligence to instinct had the power to shift the examination of the origins of mind to the register of behavior rather than physiology and anatomy. Where objects appear to sink, they are in fact buried see Figure 2. Darwin considered this act of burial a force of geology, but it began, curiously enough, with the mental habits of the worm.

But also, how far down, in a literal sense, does mind go? Worms can be found at depths of up to eight feet: they are responsible for the generation of soil and the character of landscape. In a real sense, the surface of the earth is a byproduct of the action of worms. The idea of locating mind there had the force of a secular critique of natural theology, for the lowly worm occupies the lowest level in depictions of the Christian Great Chain of Being. In a reverse of Condillac, who endowed his statue with senses one by one as a thought experiment in the minimum criteria of mind, Darwin, in his assessment of the mental habits of worms, began with the familiar senses of mammals, and removed them one after another until he isolates their mental activity in a single sense.

They expressed some small sensitivity to temperature, but they possess but feeble sense of smell or taste. Touch alone is sufficient for the presence of mind, for by touch do they select and move material into their burrows, an activity that demonstrates their powers of intellect. Do worms produce sensory images ideas of leaves? Do they make judgments based on those images?

Bryan B. Rasmussen, “Invertebrate Psychology before and after Darwin” | BRANCH

Hanging on the judgment of a worm is, in fact, the whole of nature. Armed with this common sense analogy, Darwin set about giving his worms objects of varying size and shape and watched them work out how to go about inserting them into their burrows. The brain of the worm was a black box, known only by its outputs or behaviors, but its contents might be dimly glimpsed in the light of analogy. If we accept this analogy, then we can entertain the idea that even something as complex as intelligence can arise through natural selection.

Looking at a worm fit leaves into its burrow is like operating a time machine, in which we can travel back to gaze upon ourselves at the dawn of reason. Darwin may have constrained the field of analogy, from a divine to a natural world source, but this shift was based as much on analogical thought experiment as it was on empirical evidence. This is perhaps why Darwin never wanted to publish his notes on instinct.

These two works together aimed to apply Darwinian selection to the question of intelligence and, more generally, mind. The first work he packed with examples of mental processes from the least complex animals to the most, while the second, which he regarded as likely to be the less popular, attempted to provide a grounding theory of mental evolution Romanes to Darwin, 22 April ; Romanes, Life and Letters Romanes based his theoretical work on experiments with the nervous system of the Medusae or jellyfish. His research represented the experimental limits of physiological inquiry into the brain, in the nervous tissue of invertebrates.

At the time, the existence of a central nervous system in the Medusae was controversial. In , T. Monism built upon the philosophical assumptions of the earlier Romantic sensationalists like Erasmus Darwin, for whom there was continuity between the input of the senses and mental capacities like memory, learning, reason, and choice. Reflexes might adapt to circumstances, but they do not reveal intention or consciousness. Instincts are notable for their regularity across a species.

For example, all chicks peck at the ground straight out of the shell. Instinct is also notable for the separation of means pecking from ends food. A chick will peck regardless of whether or not it obtains food from its pecking. It therefore implies conscious experience. Speculations like this and his correspondence with Darwin around the time the elder scientist was writing Insectivorous Plants reveal that Romanes was speculating about mind beyond or perhaps below the lowest forms of animal life, seeking analogies to nervous system development even in plant physiology.

We cannot, Romanes thought, observe the mental activity in other organisms directly We can only observe mind indirectly, through behavior. From these ambassadors, we have to infer the presence or absence of mind. Neither can we use the subjective—i. Organisms like jellyfish cannot report the quality of their subjective experience because they lack language to do so. Therefore, we cannot know definitively what it is like to be another organism. Darwin did not bother to defend this approach, which relied on the mind of the investigator as the comparative standard for mental phenomena.

For him, if something looked like rational choice or learning, then this was good enough to infer that it is. But this common-sense approach implicitly placed mind beyond the reach of science, in a black box. We cannot know for certain what the brain of an ant or worm is capable of.

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Romanes was not equally satisfied to leave the question of mind undisturbed, though he did recognize the special challenges that mind presented: it presented the limit of both objective and subjective analysis. As a way forward, Romanes started with the only thing we can be absolutely sure of: our own consciousness—that is, our subjective, first-person experience of the world. Having conscious experience makes us experts in mind simply by virtue of having conscious experience. Conscious experience is therefore the best—but admittedly, he adds, the only—tool for determining mind.

But this seems to get it wrong. George Romanes seemed to recognize that experimental work, in the sense of physiological experiment, could not produce objective certainty of mind; with mind, he had reached the limit of objective, experimental science. And so he had to invent a new science, and a new kind of experiment—the eject—in order to establish the existence of minds outside our own. For Romanes, the eject was an analogical thought experiment on par with objective science.

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The eject is in essence a science of compelling analogies. Romanes chose not to approach the question of mind through traditional checklists of criteria such as consciousness, choice, learning, memory, and ideation. Such criteria, he noted, were the tools of skeptics: in their application, more often than not, they prejudice us against the existence of mind. He aimed to show that we cannot know whether we are in fact observing a higher or a lower order phenomenon, ultimately aiming to collapse the distinction between higher and lower and thereby open up possibilities for mind in even the least likely places.

This is to say, there are compelling physiological analogies between both the highest level of mental functioning and the lowest. But here again, Romanes declined to explain the criteria, or explained it rather circularly. A machine is not an organism, and second, would stretch the analogy too far to attribute mind to it. But whereas a machine might provide the absolute limit of mind by virtue of its mechanical nature, the same cannot be said of a sea anemone.

What then, beyond inorganic objects does not express mind? Ideation, likewise, is the gradual coordination of various mental activities into the ability to produce abstract thought, which is, in turn, the ability to make organized associations among ideas, such as when we combine existing memories to imagine an experience we have not yet had. And that, I would argue, is its aim: to render the analogy plausible merely by thinking it.

In such phrases we express the truth of the analogy even, perhaps, before we fully grasp it. Our minds, free of prejudice against other minds, are the best tools of our scientific understanding of mind. The comparative psychologist C. Lloyd Morgan suspected that Romanes might have been gaming his science through such wordplay. In a response to Romanes, Morgan accused him of smuggling mind into his very definitions.

In this way, Romanes posited consciousness some time in the evolutionary past for behaviors we would now regard purely as non-mental, mechanical instincts. This argument illuminates an important difference in the approach to comparative psychology, particularly as the two men shared almost identical premises.

Like Romanes, Morgan believed in the union of mind and brain. And like Romanes, Morgan believed that the mind could be studied only through inference and analogy.