Mankind is genetically predisposed to view the world in concrete terms, according to researchers at the Nebraska Biocultural Research Center. As hunters ranging through the Pleistocene wilderness, our ancestors were under great selective pressure to engage the world as it really is, without questioning the validity of their immediate responses. Prehistoric foragers who engaged in abstract thinking were ill-equipped to deal with the day-to-day necessities of early human life: defending themselves from dangerous predators, responding to changes in the local environment, and securing adequate resources for themselves and their offspring. “Deconstruction,” says NBRC Senior Research Fellow Brian Talagi, “was a luxury our ancestors simply could not afford.”
Talagi, an evolutionary psychologist, heads up an interdisciplinary team of researchers exploring the development of abstract thought in man. At a press conference on Thursday, Talagi and his team announced that they had isolated the gene responsible for mankind’s capacity to think concretely, without which ancient man would not have survived. This gene, the so-called “reality gene”, produces a cocktail of neurotransmitters that allow us to establish our physical orientation to the world around us and give us a feeling of satisfaction when our perceptions are confirmed by reality. Our brain literally rewards us for “a job well done”.
Although scientists have long speculated that the reality gene existed and would work much as Talagi’s team has described, what was unexpected is the existence of a variant gene, which Talagi has named “RG-2” that inverts the relationship between man and his environment. “Instead of rewarding an accurate perception of the world,” says NBRC Associate Researcher Sharon Andeman, “RG-2 makes us feel good when our perceptions do not match the world we live in.” According to Andeman, the carrier of RG-2 is prone to question the reality of the world and to respond instead to abstract ideas about the world. What’s more, as the gap between their abstraction and the real world grows, RG-2 produces more neurotransmitters and creates a greater feeling of well-being, thus encouraging ever-greater levels of abstraction.
While RG-2 would have been maladaptive for our cave-dwelling ancestors, in today’s technologically advanced urban environment RG-2 has been allowed to spread throughout the population at an alarming rate, leading the researchers to speculate about RG-2’s role in the ever-increasing complexity of modern philosophical thought. Ndrupu Umbrere, a neurobiologist at NBRC, has traced the spread of RG-2 back to the ancient Greeks. “Prior to the rise of Greek civilization, people with RG-2 were quickly weeded from the gene pool. However, among Greek elites like Plato and Socrates, survival needs were provided for by others, allowing the possessors of RG-2 to survive and even thrive.” As greater numbers of people were freed from direct engagement with the environment around them, RG-2 was less and less a liability, reaching its peak in the late 20th century when RG-2 had almost completely replaced its healthy natural counterpart. Sometimes referred to as “the postmodern age”, the last several decades of the 20th century were characterized by a virtually wholesale disconnect from the real world, leaving only a tiny minority of men still carrying the reality gene.
Talagi refuses to speculate about the future, but notes that it is rare for a gene to be entirely replaced by a variant. “The same pressures that led to the rise of the gene in the first place generally work to create a state of equilibrium, a balance between the variants.” In the mean time, Talagi and his team are simply happy to have unraveled this mystery of human thought. “Of course we’re pleased”, he says. “How often do you get to discover the true nature of human thought?”