The mind as a self-organizing, open system

Our brain is a physical structure, built by a genetic blueprint that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years from the earliest vertebrates via reptiles and mammals to primates and eventually ourselves. When the fetus is around four months old, the brain begins generating the earliest form of proto-mind that can sense sound, taste and smell. From the last trimester and for the rest of our life, our brain keeps generating our mind.

Nature and cultures are self-organizing, complex, open systems evolving through iterations, variations and selection. According to the latest scientific research, so are the minds that our brains generate.

Charles Darwin described the evolution of life as a constant process of reproduction, variation and selection. There had been people before Darwin who realized that species were evolving, but Darwin’s stroke of genius was that he explained how: In order for life to continue, individuals have to procreate, hence reproduction. But reproduction doesn’t just produce identical copies of the parents, there are variations in the next generation: some are shorter than average, some faster, the fur may be darker, or the feathers brighter – in plants, the seeds may produce more drought resilient offspring than the “parents”. As offspring struggle to survive, some variations turn out to be more advantageous in the local environment than others, and the individuals with the beneficial traits can reproduce more and have more offspring. This way, reproduction and variation have led to a “selection”; the environment selected the fittest in that context and let them be more successful at reproduction.

The context is essential here. What it means to be fit depends on the surroundings; what benefits survival in one environment may be deadly in another. Also, fitness may just as well be about cooperation as competition. When birds eat berries and poop out the seeds far away, the bird and the plant are cooperating to survive. Not that they know it, it just happens to be so; had the one not been there, the other would not have proliferated as well. Context and interaction are essential.

Through this shockingly simple process of reproduction, variation and selection by context, biological life has evolved on our planet for 3.5 billion years. From free-floating DNA-molecules in the primordial soup, to single-cells, to multi-cell organisms, to vertebrates, reptiles, mammals, primates, and eventually humans. The global ecosystem is a self-regulating, complex multitude of inter-competing and mutually benefitting ecosystems and biotopes, wrapping the surface of the Earth in life. Below us, minerals and burning rock, above us, solar radiation and gasses, and in the thin layer where we can survive: water, oxygen and organic material.

There are still people who deny the evolution as the origin of life and, in particular, the origin of the human species. This is not only sad because it deprives them of understanding who we truly are as humans, it is also highly damaging. First, because we are nature too; we are part of that eco-system and we depend upon it and have an impact on it. Without understanding the inner workings of nature, we are killing vast parts of it and cannot preserve it. Second, as technologies and technological demands increase, as the climate changes and more people migrate, it becomes increasingly dangerous that basic science is not recognized and understood, and by some even flat out denied. One of the fears about accepting the theory of evolution is that it would mean abandoning moral values and religion, but as we shall see later in this book, evolution is not an obstacle to moral values or a religious life, quite the contrary.

An evolutionary process similar to the one in nature, takes place in cultures and cultural development: actions, thoughts, technological improvements, scientific knowledge, music, aesthetic styles, ideas, cooking recipes, rituals, prayers, crafts, fashion etc. are reproduced, variated and chosen among by us for their beauty, usefulness, taste, efficiency, and improvement of our lives. We constantly copy, modify and select from the cultural heritage, be it heritage that is familiar to us, or something that we encounter for the first time. We do so because it serves a number of purposes and is meaningful to us. It improves our lives when we choose right, when we encounter or retrieve the right kind of knowledge and turn it into the right kind of action. Life becomes meaningful when we enjoy beauty, sing, share meals, pray, contemplate existential truths, dream, hope, play a game, do sports, create art, knit a sweater, read books, conduct scientific research, hang out with friends, or join a political movement.

The culture that we received and is passing on to future generations evolves because we engage with it and reproduce it, create new variations and select from it. As we encounter other cultures than the one we grew up in, either through media or because we travel or migrate or because others do, these cultures may inspire us and we add some of it to our own culture.


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