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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.3 > Darwinian Goggles

Darwinian Goggles

Why the Human Brain Did Not Evolve to Accurately Represent the True Nature of Reality

Most of us believe that we live in a world full of sounds, colors, smells, and tastes because that’s what we experience every day of our lives and there appears to be no reason to think otherwise. However, to understand the human mind we need to abandon this naïve realism and come to accept the fact that our conscious experiences depend on the nature of our evolved neural organization, and not on the actual nature of the external world that evokes those experiences. This idea is so contrary to our common sense that few rational people would consider such a proposition to be an important insight that is essential for understanding our functional mind, but it is.

Although the external environment is teeming with electromagnetic radiation and air pressure waves, without consciousness it is both totally black and utterly silent. There is absolutely nothing that we can see, think, feel, or know that does not depend on the workings of our conscious mind. It is involved in every aspect of our daily lives; it defines who we are and the way we experience the world around us.

However, the human brain did not evolve to accurately represent the true nature of reality; it evolved for the sole purpose of enhancing the survival of our genes. This Darwinian perspective has profound implications for understanding the functional value of our conscious experiences. From this viewpoint many simple questions acquire a whole new meaning. Is sugar really sweet? Do rotten eggs really smell bad? Is it just by chance that waste products, like our feces and urine, smell and taste unpleasant? Why do we have so many different feelings, such as love, pride, fear, anger, and sadness? Why are our most intense feelings, such as orgasms, experienced when we are closest to reproductive success? When our sensations and feelings are viewed as emergent properties of biological brains, and not fixed or rigid properties that preexist in the external world, then they can evolve over generations.

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About Skeptic

PINKER ON POST-TRUTH & REASON Steven Pinker on “Why We Are Not Living in a Post-Truth Era: An (Unnecessary) Defense of Reason and a (Necessary) Defense of Universities’ Role in Advancing it” COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Coconut Oil: Health Food or Health Hazard? by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: The Persistence of Memory… and of the Memory Wars, by Carol Tavris ARTICLES The “Lost” Tribes of Israel • The Pentagon’s UFOs How a Multimedia Entertainment Company Created a UFO News Story • The Problem with the Walking Dead And How They Flummoxed Science for Centuries • The Enigma of Stephen Jay Gould • Why the Human Brain Did Not Evolve to Accurately Represent the True Nature of Reality • Homeopathy’s New Clothes: Release Active Drugs • Pressured Apologies, False Confessions, and Witch Hunts • Two Kinds of Progressive Atheism • Surfing for Truth in All the Right Places: An Empirical Test of the Backfire Effect and How the Internet Can Reduce Anti-vaccination Attitudes REVIEWS Reviews of “A review of Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities” • “Spectacle of Illusion: Deception Magic and the Paranormal” • “The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost” • “Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture” JUNIOR SKEPTIC The Chilling, Changeling Chupacabra!