New commentary on the origins of the symbolic mind

Since the publication of the Turing patterns paper in 2013 I have been involved in several exchanges in order to clarify and expand my ideas. The latest exchange of commentaries has just been published in the Rock Art Research, the official organ of the Australian Rock Art Research Association and the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations.

Helvenston, P. A. (2015a). Psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Upper Palaeolithic rock art and the neuropsychological model. Rock Art Research, 32(1): 84-89

Froese, T. (2015). The ritualised mind alteration hypothesis of the origins and evolution of the symbolic human mind. Rock Art Research, 32(1): 90-97

Helvenston, P. A. (2015b). Suppositions of psilocybin-mushroom incorporation as the main driver of human cognitive and symbolic evolution. Rock Art Research, 32(1): 98-109

At the core of this debate is the question over whether rituals involving altered states of consciousness could have played a role in human prehistory, and whether these states necessarily would have required the presence of certain psychoactive substances, and if these substances would have even been available at the time. In essence, my answers are yes, no, but yes.

In this post I previously remarked about my disagreements with the way in which the commentaries about my work had been presented. But I prefer to advance the scientific debate itself, so I will highlight one aspect of Helvenston’s last response that I find intriguing. She notes how it is difficult to explain the presence of extreme rituals, especially those involving partially disabling substances, from an evolutionary perspective.

This ties in with current debates in the science of religion, which tries to explain costly rituals in a variety of ways such as honest signaling and pro-social psychological effects. I’ve been thinking for a while that it is likely that such rituals would have had to have biologically adaptive advantages from the start, perhaps related to a form of neural self-optimization similar to the model presented in Woodward, Froese and Ikegami (in press). This could be a topic of future work.

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