Neuromythography: A Rationalist Prophecy?

Everybody wants a creation myth of evolution.
Neuromythography: A Rationalist Prophecy?
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor / Unsplash

A recent Aeon essay by biologist Michael Levin and philosopher Daniel Dennett caught my eye:

I greatly relish the opportunity to attest that neuromythography is inspired by the same spiritual yearning expressed by well-known outspoken atheist, Daniel Dennett, even if he would chafe at the word ‘spiritual’.

What Dennett calls an ‘intentional stance’ is very similar to the personification stance of neuromythography, as we shall see. Anyway, after Levin and Dennett completes a fairly technical exposition of planarians, developmental programs, and bioelectric epigenetics, they offer an apologia:

[…] isn’t all the talk of memory, decision-making, preferences and goal-driven behaviour just anthropomorphism? Many will want to maintain that real cognition is what brains do, and what happens in biochemistry only seems like it’s doing similar things. We propose an inversion of this familiar idea; the point is not to anthropomorphise morphogenesis – the point is to naturalise cognition. There is nothing magic that humans (or other smart animals) do that doesn’t have a phylogenetic history. Taking evolution seriously means asking what cognition looked like all the way back. Modern data in the field of basal cognition makes it impossible to maintain an artificial dichotomy of ‘real’ and ‘as-if’ cognition. There is one continuum along which all living systems (and many nonliving ones) can be placed, with respect to how much thinking they can do.

Neuromythography naturalizes cognition by blatantly and flamboyantly anthropomorphizing morphogenesis. Exciting things happen when you embrace this ‘useful fiction’. Levin, and especially Dennett, are wont to defend themselves against the ‘mortal sin’ of anthropomorphism as established by modern academic norms. Within the framework of neuromythography, we create a ‘safe space’ for anthropomorphism as a mental tool for comprehending and reasoning with such a large concept interaction network (thousands of entities, tens of thousands of connections), and simply do not worry about discourse police handing us a card from their fallacy collectible card game deck. Such people are like critics who attend a theater performance and scoff at the audience for believing that the fake blood was real while engaging the performance. They don’t get what we are doing, because they are too busy puffing themselves up to be open to introspecting and contemplating.

Levin expresses a form of ‘As Above, So Below’:

Agents can combine into networks, scaling their tiny, local goals into more grandiose ones belonging to a larger, unified self. And of course, any cognitive agent can be made up of smaller agents, each with their own limits on the size and complexity of what they’re working towards.

The idea of the body, and specifically the brain, as a hierarchical colonial organism is a central concept within neuromythography. Each character has a role to play, interacting with its neighbors local and remote. Neuromythography also posits that brain nuclei generally have a restricted behavioral function, and that heterogeneity in brain area behavior across experiments is a hint that there exist further cell groups to be distinguished inside of the brain area in question.

Levin and Bennett conclude:

From this perspective, we can visualise the tiny cognitive contribution of a single cell to the cognitive projects and talents of a lone human scout exploring new territory, but also to the scout’s tribe, which provided much education and support, thanks to language, and eventually to a team of scientists and other thinkers who pool their knowhow to explore, thanks to new tools, the whole cosmos and even the abstract spaces of mathematics, poetry and music. Instead of treating human ‘genius’ as a sort of black box made of magical smartstuff, we can reinterpret it as an explosive expansion of the bag of mechanical-but-cognitive tricks discovered by natural selection over billions of years. By distributing the intelligence over time – aeons of evolution, and years of learning and development, and milliseconds of computation – and space – not just smart brains and smart neurons but smart tissues and cells and proofreading enzymes and ribosomes – the mysteries of life can be unified in a single breathtaking vision.

Neuromythography takes up the banner of this spiritual sentiment–a search for meaning within evolution–and assembles the contents of the bag of mechanical tricks into pleasing motifs that (hopefully) reveal the mind of the Creator. By Creator we mean the universalist god of Einstein and Spinoza. As Einstein described it:

Scientific research can reduce superstition by encouraging people to think and view things in terms of cause and effect. Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. […] This firm belief, a belief bound up with a deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. In common parlance this may be described as “pantheistic” (Spinoza).

Neuromythography is a pantheistic reinterpretation in the metaphorical form of ‘magical smartstuff’ as Levin and Dennett put it, but with anthropomorphisms held loosely so that they can be cast away in favor of aesthetically better ones as new scientific evidence emerges. Importantly, we agree with Levin and Bennett that the life of the mind and of society must ultimately reflect the physical wetware that lies inside of our heads, and the programmed biochemical milieu from which those ensemble effects emerge. Social theorists often handwave away biological facts they do not like as ‘biological essentialism’, but it is heartening to see a rather strident atheist such as Daniel Dennett embrace modern biology’s richer view of epigenetics and evolution. Many science journalists see themselves as defending against an ignorant creationist menace, and are resistant to any sort of inquiry that is not structured in the form of an imagined selection mechanism for random DNA copying errors. A more informed view of the deep motifs within biology is, ironically, required to be open to embracing neuromythography.

There will be those that label neuromythography as ‘crypto-creationist woo’ or somesuch. I think that this is like labeling a modern microprocessor as an ‘Arithometer‘–defensible in the most general and reductive sense, but far from descriptive. For the neuromythographer is as far evolved from the creationist as man is from the lancelet.

About the author
Steven Florek

Steven Florek

Steven Florek is the creator of neuromythography and founder of Neuromemex.

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