Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

Uncommon Descent Contest Question 18: Can the ancient reptile brain help explain human psychology? If so, how? If not, why not?


(Note: : Go here for Contest 16 (“Are materialist atheists smarter than other types of believers?”) and here for Contest 17 (“Why do evolutionary psychologists need to debunk compassion?”). )

We have, we are told, three brains – reptilian, mammalian, and primate. Here is a conventional science explanation, and here is the pop psychology that results.

It all sounds bit too neat to me, for two reasons: First, all the areas are interconnected. Second, it is not clear that reptiles uniformly fail emotionally compared to many mammals. See here, for example.

Honestly, it all sounds like pop psychology, straight from the airport paperback kiosk to the bored passenger. But I would be glad to know more. Here is a popularrendition of “reptile brain” theory, as employed by some lawyers in law courts.

So, for a free copy of The Spiritual Brain: a neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, Harper One 2007), which argues for non-materialist neuroscience, answer this question: If so, how? If not, why not? What can it really tell us?

Here are the contest rules. Four hundred words or less. Winners receive a certificate verifying their win as well as the prize. Winners must provide me with a valid postal address, though it need not be theirs. A winner’s name is never added to a mailing list. Have fun!

Also, here are some posts at The Mindful Hack that may be of some use or interest:

Reptile brain: Even reptiles don’t have one, or not exactly, anyway

Rooks in captivity show more feats using tools. [How come some birds are so smart and others are fairly stupid?]

Great majority of neuroscientists on wrong track?

Is your brain full of anachronistic junk?

Reptilian brain a barrier to investment?

Some fun You Tubes:

Training an alligator:


Alligators and crocodiles as parents


This one is not very funny at all – the alligator death roll – and is presented only as a caution:

Lots of people have died or suffered serious injuries trying to outsmart a crocodilian in a situation where the reptile is the expert.

The “triune brain” theory (MacLean, 1970) presents the brain in terms of three successive layers: 1) the proto-reptilian system of spinal cord, brain stem, diencephalon and basal ganglia, which controls all genetically-programmed survival behaviours and a range of basic physiological functions such as heartbeat, breathing, digestion, et cetera; 2) the paleo-mammalian ‘limbic’ system, comprised of amygdala, hypothalamus and hippocampus, which generates self-awareness and attendant emotional responses; and 3) the neo-mammalian cerebral cortex, responsible for foresight, insight, reason, speech, et cetera. MacLean’s model was an attempt to show that the evolutionary inheritance of modern human beings could be directly discerned in the structure of our brains. On the face of it, this seems a reasonable enough approach since, if we are indeed the transitory outcome of an on-going evolutionary process, the evidence ought to be visible within our physiology. As with every evolutionary artefact, however, the theory does not appear to have held up over time and is now outmoded, at least from a neurobiological standpoint. Against the predictions of Maclean’s theory, ‘mammalian’ social and parental behaviours show up in a wide range of non-mammalian vertebrates. Indeed, birds are demonstrably in possession of their own ‘limbic’ structures and reptiles appear to be, too. The notion of evolution to which the triune theory adheres is ‘pre-synthesis’ - it postulates the addition of novel structure upon novel structure in a linear fashion. The ground of ‘orthogenesis’, however, which presented evolution as steadily progressive, has long since been lost. In the post-synthetic world, those sticking determinedly to evolutionary explanations for the origin and development of life see the process as proceeding mainly through adaptation of pre-existing structures. Three big slabs of systemic independence loosely knitted together would be a crude violation of this, and of the organic interrelatedness of all parts of the brain. Clinical and ‘pop’ psychologists together and, of course, the lay media, are among those who like the three-brained idea. The concept of mental triplicity does appear to be useful to many people in practice, not as an accurate description of the material organisation of the brain but of the dynamic architecture of the mind as encountered from within. The notion that humans exist upon three ‘planes’ – material, psychic and spiritual – can be found in many traditions and also corresponds to Plato’s tripartite view of the soul. An idea so enduring may well be reflective of something essentially and immutably true. Aidan
Maybe this is cheating, but here is the response that my father in law gave me when I asked him the question. He is a brain researcher at the University of Washington. "I think that this model is an oversimplification of the brain that is based on an evolutionary model of the brain. It is true that we all have a flight or fight response and we have basic functions that are common with other animals such as breathing, rudimentary emotions, instincts, hunger, mating, etc, but the higher human functions are different from other animals. But I have always been impressed with dolphins who have saved humans from sharks and from drownings. There is even a dolphin therapy. Anyway the part of the brain that humans have that I don't think could have just evolved is the language/communication part and the spiritual awareness part." Collin
Did the boy lose his arm? Collin

Leave a Reply