Human History in a Hurry and the Circadian Theory of Learning

Written by David Bryson. Posted in Opinion, Science

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Published on July 04, 2012 with 1 Comment

By David Bryson

July 4, 2012

Six years ago I wrote two columns for Fog City Journal. I’m now combining the two into a single concise summary. By reading this you will learn more about the evolution of mammalian and human learning than is available anywhere else. Consider this scientific speculation on a planetary scale.

First read “Cosmopolitics.” This is an exponential time series from the birth of the earth up to time present. It is easy to learn and hard to forget. My nickname for this mental invention is Human History in a Hurry. The search for a creation story has been universal in all cultures, and here for the first time is a creation story with a scientific basis and an exponential timeline.

Then read “Cosmopolitics II.” This is a gloss of the Circadian Theory of Learning, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1969. (There is a link to a 30 minute interview of me on National Public Radio. Anyone who listens to this, or is curious without hearing the interview, can email with questions or comments at davidbry@ktc.com).

The last time segment in the series – 5×10^0 – is no longer the first five years of the 20th Century, as it was in the link above. (Any number to the power of zero = 1, thus 5×10^0 = 5). Another five years have passed (2007-2012) and nothing important has improved. There is still ongoing degradation of the biosphere, more military mayhem, and increasing disconnect between the well being of people who vote and the actions of political leaders and governments who are supposed to serve them. Emma Goldman said, “There is no such thing as a good government.” When the subject is federal governments, rather than local and municipal governments, I agree with her.

The other time segments can stand as is – no adjustments to the presentation of my column in 2006 are necessary. Another five years is not important when considering the last 50, 500, 5000, 50,000, 500,000, 5 million, 500 million, and 5 billion years.

So let’s go!

5×10^9 (about 5 billion years ago) – Our understanding of the formation of the solar system and the origin of life is about the same as five years ago. Many more extra-solar planets have been discovered, and a few of these might have conditions compatible with the genesis of life. There is still no general accepted theory for how life first developed on earth.

5×10^8  (about 500 million years ago) – For conceptual purposes, I characterize the evolution of vertebrates, from the first fish all of way through to dinosaurs and the first mammals, as being the story of bodies. Each species of vertebrates is classified by its body rather than by its brain. The brain of all vertebrates is at the front end of the body, for close communication with sight, hearing, smell, and mouth/feeding. The brain of vertebrates is in the service of its body.

5×10^7 (about 50 million years ago) – With the appearance of the first monkeys, now the body becomes in the service of the brain. The Circadian Theory of Learning enters here! About 55 million years ago there was a huge increase in global temperature, rising about 11 degrees Fahrenheit in just 20,000 years. This brought about major changes in plant and animal life which the first monkeys had to learn about, rather than rely on instinct. New behaviors were dream driven more than gene driven. Incremental genetic changes in behavior would be way too slow to adapt to the explosion of new plants and other animals. Many new species of fruits and nuts evolved, which the monkey brain categorized via perceptual learning during REM sleep. Before the disappearance of the dinosaurs, mammals were mainly nocturnal, when it was safer to move about. Monkeys became diurnal, doing their business during the daylight, and relying on vision to seek out brightly colored ripe fruit which they had learned was maximally nutritious. They had never seen these fruits before. Monkeys were the first creatures to develop Learning with a capital L, because monkeys were the first vertebrates to have a robust cerebral cortex which switched to robust REM time (dreaming) during sleep. Little episodes of decisional learning while awake, providing the grist for inductive analysis for category formation and modification (perceptual learning) during sleep. The evolution of mammalian and human learning cannot be explained on a waking world only basis. (The 1969 theory is copied verbatim at circadiantheoryoflearning.wordpress.com).

5×10^6 (about 5 million years ago) – I have a new idea which relates the origin of bipedal walking, 5 million years ago, to the development of human speech, about 50,000 years ago (5×10^4). As humans evolved the brain kept getting bigger and bigger, and finally it became so big at birth that it was difficult for the female pelvic opening to pass the newborn’s head through the birth canal. The pelvic outlet got as big as possible about 500,000 year ago (5×10^5), and could get no bigger because more widening of the hips would produce bio-mechanical instability for walking and running. So evolution came up with something quite new – massive ongoing increase in brain size after birth – the prolonged infancy of humans. So human babies and toddlers up to the age of about 5 would sit around with mothers and other children, and I think it was these toddlers, sitting together for hours every day, who invented human speech as they played with sticks, stones, and gave names to anyone and anything.

5×10^5 (about 500,000 years ago) – the previous entry states the basis of my speculation about how walking humans eventually leads to talking amongst humans. Of the many ideas about the benefits of walking upright, I most like the suggestion that it is that is it far more efficient energetically than walking on all four limbs, as do chimps and gorillas. Thus, when humans had to travel perhaps several miles to a food or water source, it burned far fewer calories walking upright.. During their dreams, should we walk to the same stream for water tomorrow? What should we do tomorrow if we see the same group of potential enemies in the valley? The purpose of sleep is better management of the next waking state.

5×10^4 (about 50,000 years ago) – I have recently learned that organized warfare – the premeditated killing of humans by other humans, not just random aggression – is far older than the first cities and the onset of civilization. That the potential for lethal aggression towards others outside the tribal groups, armed with weapons of war, that this is hardwired in humans makes the search for world peace more problematic than ever. So while human groups were developing complex language, trading, ornamentation, music, cave painting, and more, there was a possibility of a major battle if attacked or if starving, and for this weapons were essential.

5×10^3 (about 5,000 years ago) – Here the importance of learning via dreaming starts to recede. In Mesopotamia it was written that certain dreams had a certain proper interpretation, such as “if you dream of your sister giving birth to twins, your crop of wheat may fail.” Totally arbitrary and dogmatic. The core importance of dreaming for human survival is exiled to a mental Siberia, dominated by waking-world-only rules, egocentric potentates, and material values.

5×10^2 (the last 500 years) – It was a long road from the first writing at 5×10^3 to full scientific logic. The music and mathematics of Mesopotamia and Egypt was more concrete than abstract. Einstein said that two mental revolutions had to occur…basic big league logic first appeared in Greece with Euclid and Archimedes, and it was not until the scientific revolution involving close observations and experiments, with Galileo as the prototype, that full-scale science could open the world of objective realities to the human mind. The real world is not designed for learning. It is full of false starts and biological camouflage. Rosa Luxemburg said, “Nothing is more revolutionary than to see the world as it actually is.”

5×10^1 (the last 50 years) – There are more and more examples of various human milestones that have jumped up exponentially in the last 50 years. From the depletion of eatable fish to the worldwide number of MacDonalds. This tops off 5000 years of unrestrained mercantilism with no natural limits or boundary restraints. Fifty-years of military expenses and hostilities defy the sanity of women and children. The last 50 years have been called the “Great Acceleration”.

This time frame is inherently provocative. The first humans are 1000 times older than the first cities. The first fish are 100 times older than the first humans. Since the onset of urban civilization, we are flying faster and faster without a flight plan. If the Darwinian world could speak, it would proclaim that aliens have arrived, dropping bombs and driving cars.

I hope you will share this with your friends, families, and students everywhere.

David Bryson

David Bryson

David Bryson is a retired physician, intellectual polyglot, and anarcho-pacifist. He lives in Kerrville, Texas.

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  • Jyoungcolumn

    ” . . . flying faster and faster without a flight plan . . .” Have we left the evolutionary arc and begun the descent into the abyss?