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November 23rd, 2020
There is an idea and opinion among scientists that theory of mind began with the invention of predation in the Cambrian period. Before this period, there were no hunters, and nothing was subjected to being prey. Imagine a world of plants and molluscs, all at peace, but certainly without much incentive to evolve. The invention of predation provided just that sort of incentive. To develop eyes and ears, not only to look out for predators, but also to try and find lunch.
The advent of predation likely kickstarted a sensory arms race that extended not just to ways of getting information from the environment, but also ways of interpreting that information. Theory of Mind is quite likely one of those interpretations that help an organism flourish and persevere in this cutthroat game of survival. If you can model the mind of your prey in your own mind, then you can think like that prey, and thereby anticipate the movements and plans of that prey, to predict them, and plan accordingly in order to intercept, ideally at lunchtime. The converse is also symmetrically powerful. If you are prey modelling the mind of your top predator, then you are predicting how they will perhaps try to predict your own movements and by going on this little imaginary adventure, potentially thwarting the designs of an enemy who is bent on consuming you.
One disturbing ramification from the notion that theory of mind arises from the invention of predation has to do with compassion and cruelty, and how they may be inextricably linked.
Compassion, to start with the lighter and kinder of the two requires a theory of mind. In order to feel compassion for someone else, it’s necessary to imaginatively put one’s self in the situational shoes of someone else. This requires, not just compiling all the situational components of their life, but also taking detailed measure of their emotions as represented by their actions, their words and their expressions. With so much information, the compassionate among us can close eyes and imagine the world as someone else, to model the mind of that person and to then feel the pain or pleasure, sorrow and surprise that someone else a tally experiences. This is one of our greatest gifts as a species.
There is, however, an uncomfortable flip side to this powerful theory of mind. Cruelty at its most diabolical requires the same exact theory of mind. In order to consciously and deliberately hurt someone as much as possible, one must first play the same trick: to imagine what it is like to be that target person and then ask, what would be the worst thing that could happen to someone with this perspective? Without theory of mind, the cruel intention can’t land as close to the heart as possible. Cruelty is a potentially random strike, like a first move in a game of Battleship, equipped with a fairly random set of odds as to whether action will land effectively or not. Theory of mind removes a lot of this guess work by zeroing in on what is important for another organism. This is exactly how it likely functioned with predation. What is important to the predatory is inversely identical to the prey, so the development of a theory of mind potentially had a large incentive to iterate quickly. What is important to the prey is to not be eaten and the predator is equally in need of lunch, hence the need to model one another’s view of the world becomes equally important.
It’s certainly just conjecture, but it’s possible that compassion - one of the most exalted qualities that we prize among our species may in fact be a product of something that is anything put compassionate: predation.
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