Caimans — Pantanal, Brazil
If you ask any respectable neuroscientist, they’ll tell you it’s an outdated model — the idea of the triune (three-part) brain, originally developed by Dr. Paul MacLean. Part of the reason has to be the fMRI, that tool that shows the finer neural structures, enables that endless march of reliability and refinement mentioned earlier, and the fact that when you’ve got a big hunk of something, there has to be more meaning in the details. But if you respond to authority, though, the famous astronomer and science popularizer, Carl Sagan liked the triune brain enough to write a book about it — The Dragons of Eden.
Here’s the short version. The brain has three primary groupings, that followed evolutionarily — the so-called reptilian complex, the paleomammalian cortex, and the neomammalian cortex. The idea is that as the brain evolved, we moved as individuals from automatic-functioning reptiles, to nursing, attachment-based mammals, to thinking primates with big prefrontal cortexes (cortices?)
To be completely honest, I haven’t read Dr. MacLean’s nor Sagan’s book. But I doubt that they paid much more than a passing mention to empathy. There are reasons for that that we’ll get to. And while I love the model, I hate the names. Anyone that’s seen the dude on the Internet that has a crocodile as a pet knows that something’s going on there connection-wise. That croc has got more than the reptilian complex. It’s more than mirroring behavior, and probably more than just a little emotional empathy. It’s trans-species, but even folks that have dogs get a little nervous when you throw a reptile into the mix.
One of the things that we’re really uncomfortable with are evolutionary ideas or paradigms. We’re still fighting over whether humans were created in a day about 6000 years ago, or emerged from proto-humans on the plains of Africa over 1.6 million years ago. And people who might even be comfortable with evolution still want to refer to the accepted randomness of it all — that arbitrary mutations were naturally selected by large, natural forces to create fitter and fitter organisms, that apparently we happen to luckily be on the top of the heap right now. At least for us.
But here’s a new concept — that what we’re really seeing (even though it takes a really long time!) is the organization of sentience. And that sentience takes lots of different forms — from fish, to crocodiles, to humans. And that sentience is somehow optimized when you group semi-autonomous agents together and balance the exchange of information between those agents. There are powerful forces of self-organization that take hold. This isn’t some kind of spiritual mumbo-jumbo, either. Lots of different insects, when certain resource and spatial concerns pass thresholds, self-organize in all sorts of interesting ways.
All those individual agents are still subject to evolutionary forces, of course. Imagine it as a race track, where there are a bunch of packs of animals lined up at the starting line of present time, and the gun fires. Some of the animals have immediate advantage in self-organization — their size, brains/intelligence, and such favor coordination, and they rapidly take off. They’re in what might known as their ‘In Group’. And because that exchange of information is so important for pack survival, their empathetic abilities grow over time. Because that’s what you really need for coordination of all your agents. It’s a sensor web, optimizing as time passes.
Some animals are handicapped in this evolutionary race. They have neither brains nor behaviors that encourage evolutionary empathetic connection, nor adaptability, or maybe only do so modestly. Exactly how this handicapping works might find a more accessible physical analogy in Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Panda’s Thumb. In the titular essay, the author, an evolutionary biologist, made the point that a sesamoid bone — a minor bone that grows embedded in tendon or muscle — was the bone that grew in size until it turned into the giant panda’s thumb — not a well-formed thumb at all, but one the evolved as the animal, a large bear, turned more and more to a bamboo diet.
We humans probably had a little luck in having the right combination of size, need for coordination, and resources in our evolutionary journey for emergent brain function that required empathy. Our brains, with their structure, likely favored our transition to processing-in-software that we see in our pre-frontal cortex, than the processing-in-hardware of our limbic and cerebellar and autonomic nervous systems. Empathetic connection, as we will discuss, played heavily on all the data processing that developed even further the pre-frontal cortex. Never forget that developing empathetic connection requires tremendous amounts of data processing — basic empathy involves watching other sentient beings just like you, taking the data, processing it, and then reacting or acting in either an automatic and/or socially acceptable and pro-active ways. And brains are no different than any other organ — it’s use-it or lose-it. Make no bones about it — empathetic connection (especially rational empathy — stay tuned) develops the rational mind.
But an interesting thing happened back at the race track. Our empathetic connection abilities jumped out of the pack. We broadened our definition of what an ‘In Group’ might look like. We roped dogs, horses, cows, and even cats onto our team. From the beginning, tribal social structures found empathetic connection of varying degrees with an assortment of animal animuses. As we develop even in the current era, our software and social organizations create empathetic connections to all sorts of species, all over the planet. Though imperfect, we pass Endangered Species Acts, and biodiversity initiatives. Through empathetic sharing networks of our own creation, we started realizing the importance of all of these beings. And some of them, that have the capacity, have reconnected back to us.
Yeah, it’s not true for all humans. It may be that it’s not true for ENOUGH humans. But anyone that doesn’t believe that this can happen needs to go meet Jane Goodall.
If there’s a simple point, it’s this. Evolution and empathy go hand-in-hand. The more connections we make, the better. The more profound connections, the even-better better. And at the same time that we appreciate the evolution of our own neural structures, we need to also understand that others’ neural structures are also evolving, and that the forces of self-organization and information coherence are also at play in the evolutionary picture. And while there may be random elements at play, and the biological structures are not quite the same, they are definitely not arbitrary.
But sentience follows a clear path — though the steps along the path may not be transparent, nor constant. Sentience is rewarded through integration of greater and greater amounts of information, with greater coherence and error detection.
That’s the real lesson of the triune brain.
Takeaway: Sentience is evolutionary, and the self-organization that it prompts is a guiding principle in evolution. Ostensibly independent agents will coordinate behavior, and evolve brains that allow coordination of behavior to gain evolutionary advantage. And when they get to a certain point, they’ll leap out of the ‘only our species matters’ box and bring other sentient beings along — if they have any sense.