It's a Jungle in There: How Competition and Cooperation in the Brain Shape the Mind
David A. Rosenbaum
Oxford University Press, 2014

Natural selection—the causal mechanism that Charles Darwin showed was responsible for the origin of new species—is difficult for many people to understand. It is not the simple linear kind of causation we see when the swing of a golf club sets a ball in motion. Linear causation is usually quick and obvious; selection by consequences takes time to work and is sometimes difficult to detect. You know it has occurred when (a) a number of interconnected events compete for resources in the environment, (b) some of those events are selected as being superior and (c) subsequent occurrences of those kinds of events now look more like the ones that were selected. The selection process changes probabilities; it strengthens the fit and weakens the unfit.

In 1978 Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman theorized that Darwinian competition among neural circuits might underlie the experience of consciousness itself. Now Rosenbaum, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University, asserts that the entire cognitive world operates along Darwinian lines—that competition among the neural circuits underlying motor behavior, thinking, memory and perception accounts for everything we think, say and do.

This is a radical idea, especially in one aspect. Just as Darwin's theory eliminated the need for a “designer,” Rosenbaum's “jungle theory” eliminates the need for an “executive.” There is, he insists—and contrary to what common sense and experience seem to tell you—no central, supervising self inside you that is composing sentences, making decisions and shifting attention. Instead a population of behavioral and perceptual tendencies is in constant competition with one another, strengthened or weakened by cues and consequences in the environment. How they sum at any moment in time determines what you do. You are, in effect, a “plurality.”

The alternative, Rosenbaum says, is untenable—namely that there is an entity inside you who directs what you do but whose behavior we must in turn explain.

Unfortunately, this exciting idea gets lost at times when Rosenbaum sinks into the esoterica of technical experiments from the field of cognitive psychology. Of greater concern, he admits that his theory is “more a sketch than a complete theory.” How, physically, does the competition and selection process work? Rosenbaum can't say.

These problems aside, It's a Jungle in There deserves to be selected. It presents a bold idea that puts human cognition squarely onto the shoulders of giants in the natural sciences, Darwin among them.