"The remainder [of the brain] is more like an exposed negative waiting to be dipped into developer fluid."

— Wilson, E. O. (b. 1929)

Place of Publication
Harvard UP
"The remainder [of the brain] is more like an exposed negative waiting to be dipped into developer fluid."
Metaphor in Context
Viewed in a certain way, the phenomenon of learning creates a major paradox. It seems to be a negating force in evolution. How can learning evolve? Unless some Lamarckist process is at work, individual acts of learning cannot be transmitted to offspring. If learning is a generalized process whereby each brain is stamped afresh by experience, the role of natural selection must be solely to keep the tabula rasa of the brain clean and malleable. To the degree that learning is paramount in the repertory of a species, behavior cannot evolve. This paradox has been resolved in the writings of Niko Tinbergen, Peter Marler, Sherwood Washburn, Hans Kummer, and others. What evolves is the directedness of learning--the relative ease with which certain associations are made and acts are learned, and others bypassed even in the face of strong reinforcement. Pavlov was simply wrong when he postulated that "any natural phenomena chosen at will may be converted into conditioned stimuli." Only small parts of the brain resemble a tabula rasa; this is true even for human beings. The remainder is more like an exposed negative waiting to be dipped into developer fluid. This being the case, learning also serves as a pacemaker of evolution. When exploratory behavior leads one or a few animals to a breakthrough enhancing survival and reproduction, the capacity for that kind of exploratory behavior and the imitation of the successful act are favored by natural selection. The enabling portions of the anatomy, particularly the brain, will then be perfected by evolution. The process can lead to greater stereotypy--"instinct" formation--of the succesful new behavior. A caterpillar accidentally captured by a fly-eating sphecid wasp might be the first step toward the evolution of a species whose searching behavior is directed preferentially at caterpillars. Or, more rarely, the learned act can produce higher intelligence. As Washburn has said, a human mind can easily guide a chimpanzee to a level of performace that lies well beyond the normal behavior of the species. In both species, the wasp and man, the structure of the brain has been biased in special ways to exploit opportunities in the environment.
(p. 79)
Reading Edward Slingerland, "Good and Bad Reductionism: Acknowledging the Power of Culture." Style. 42:2-3 (Summer/Fall 2008). p. 270.
Wilson, E. O. Sociobiology: The Abridged Edition. Harvard UP, 1998.
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Date of Entry

The Mind is a Metaphor is authored by Brad Pasanek, Assistant Professor of English, University of Virginia.