What is Reason? How Is It Like Evolution?

January 21, 2018 in Uncategorized

This is the first of four installments in a blog series by Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D.  The full series is titled “Reason is a Type of Evolution (Universal Darwinism).”  Dr. Barkley will speak and lead a discussion for RRNA on January 30th, 6:30 p.m., at the Libbie Mill Library.  This series is not obligatory reading in order to attend, but it frames and supplements Dr. Barkley’s appearance.  The next three installments will be posted over the remaining days before the 30th.

What is Reason?  How is it Like Evolution?

by Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D.

What is Reason?  It is a process of thinking critically about our ideas and those of others.  Those ideas are pieces of information, usually about the natural world.  When we use Reason, we compare those ideas against the evidence that may be available to support or refute them.  In short, we criticize the information.  We determine the extent to which it agrees (conforms) or disagrees with the natural world and the information we have previously collected about it.  In this way, we let the environment and its evidence assist us in selecting out or refuting ideas or statements that do not agree with that evidence.

We are especially interested in evidence that can refute the idea, statement, or assertion about the world.  That is because our available evidence may be quite limited and so may not be able yet to refute an idea.  Strictly speaking, a lack of evidence for refuting an idea does not mean that the idea is definitively true or correct.  It means only that we await the collection of further evidence that could potentially refute, or falsify, the statement.  Until then, the statement may continue to be accepted as provisionally supported – we may continue to use it for the time being until more evidence for or against it becomes available.   We may stipulate to the degree of confidence we have in the idea’s truth-value given a substantial body of evidence that supports (doesn’t refute) it.  So the information or idea survives for now.  There is always the chance that a time may come later when evidence becomes available that may refute the idea. We remain skeptical about ideas and statements about the world, understanding that we may tentatively accept an idea as being true for now while awaiting further evidence, particularly when the available evidence may be very limited.

More specifically, Reason first involves making coherent and logical (noncontradictory) statements about some aspect of the natural world.  It then involves testing that idea and the information it contains against the prevailing relevant evidence from that natural world.  In some cases, the statement is really just a hypothesis – an educated guess about the nature of something.  In that case, we may do some further experimentation to determine if that statement can withstand the evidence provided by that experiment.  The experiment is designed in such a way as to test the assertion to see if it agrees or disagrees with the evidence from that experiment.

This does not have to involve formal scientific experimentation.  All of us test some of our ideas against the environment on a frequent if not daily basis.  For instance, when we face a problem, such as what may be wrong with an appliance that is not working.  We may initially propose an explanation.  We then go about testing that explanation or trying it out to see what happens.  We let the evidence from that test feed back to tell us if our initial idea was correct.  If it isn’t, we abandon it and propose another possible explanation and try that out.  Notice that when we engage in this type of personal experimentation, we are letting the environment and the evidence it is providing select out or refute our bad (false) ideas. It is as if we are playing 20 questions with the environment until we hit upon the correct solution (explanation).  The environment, through its criticism of the idea (negative feedback) is serving to shape or guide our attempts at finding a correct explanation by weeding out the ideas that are wrong.  This is like natural selection by consequences.

Making an assertion and testing it against the prevailing evidence is like a trial or replication in that evidence is being examined for and against the truth-value of the statement.  Such experimentation or testing of the idea is the essence of critical thinking, or Reasoning.  Ideas or assertions that can withstand such criticism and testing against reality survive to be accepted — they live on for awhile longer.  They may do so until further testing may serve to refute them (eliminate them) or at least modify portions of them.  The revised version can then be tested again. Note that these statements that seem to agree with the evidence are viewed as being only tentatively or provisionally true or correct.  We understand that they may be subsequently refuted by further evidence that is not yet available.  Science is based on Reasoning.  But it is a much more systematic, codified, and social or cultural means by which we use reasoning along with the more strict standards used for gathering scientific evidence to formulate and test statements about the natural world.  Reasoning is usually done personally or within our own mind, though we may share our reasoning with others.  In contrast, science is social.  It is done within a community of other scientists and the results are shared through a more formal process of journal publication involving peer review or at least presented at a scientific meeting of our peers during which our peers offer feedback.

Can Reason (and Science) be viewed as a type of evolution by natural selection (Darwinism)?  The answer, in my opinion, is “yes.”  People who are familiar with Darwinian evolution by natural selection nearly always understand it at the biological or genetic level, as in how species originate and evolve over time.  Far less well understood is that evolution by natural selection (henceforth simply termed evolution) can occur at other more psychological and sociological (cultural) levels by which information about the natural world is acquired.  Viewing evolution as a general process by which information about the world is tested against it is known as Universal Darwinism.  It states that the process of the evolution of all information about the natural world, not just genetically coded information, occurs through natural selection – the testing of the information against reality for its degree of agreement with the natural world.

Evolution is like an algorithm or set of steps.  Those specific steps can be found in Part II, the next article (blog) I have posted.  They do not concern us here.  What does is examining the similarities between the process of evolution as it is understood to operate at the genetic or biological level and Reason as it operates at the psychological and social level (as Science).

All of these forms of evolution involve coded information.  In the case of genetic evolution, it is the information coded in genes using the nucleic acids abbreviated by the letters A-G-T-C.  That information can be coded in a sequence of letters that is used to create proteins that build organisms from that information.  In the case of Reason, it is information encoded in the idea, statement or assertion that may be spoken or even written down.  In the case of Science, the information is published in scientific archives.

Both genetic evolution and Reason involve testing the information against the environment through trials or experiments.  In genetic evolution, this is done through repeated replications (reproduction) of the information and especially the organisms that genetic information produces.  In Reason it involves making an assertion and then testing that information against the environment.

In both biological evolution and Reason, the information is being tested against the surrounding environment for how well or poorly it may survive so as to reproduce itself again.  Biological or genetic evolution serves to test genetically coded information and the organism it creates for how well they agree with or conform to the environment.  The more that genetic information (and its vehicle – the organism) disagrees or conflicts with the environment, the more likely it is not to survive and so to reproduce again.

In both genetic evolution and in Reason, the environment is therefore criticizing the information offered up in the trial or experiment for how well it matches the relevant conditions in the natural world.  As Darwin argued, the environment is selecting out organisms (and the genetic information they contain) for how poorly that organism (and its information) matches up with that environment.  The more that information fails to match up with the environment, the less likely it is to survive (and so be destroyed) by the environment relative to other arrangements of that information that may be better adapted to (in better agreement with) that environment.  Others have argued that Reason and Science do much the same thing.  They serve to offer up information in such a way that it can be tested against the natural world and that world serves to select out or remove that information based on the feedback (evidence) so obtained.

In sum, evolution by natural selection is not limited simply to information coded in genes and DNA, or the genetic level.  More than 50 years ago, the renowned psychologist, Donald Campbell, argued that evolution is a general explanation for how information about the environment can accumulate over time and undergo continuous refinement (Campbell, 1960).  As he claimed, anywhere in the universe that information about the environment (knowledge) can be found to have accumulated it will have done so by a Darwinian process of evolution (replication with environmental selection).  Richards (1987) later supported this view.  The great philosopher, Karl Popper, also argued that knowledge about the world, such as that produced by science, develops by a process of natural selection – the testing of information against the natural world and having that information refuted.  As he argued, Science advances not so much by conformation as disconfirmation (criticism).

The similarities between Reason (and Science) and biological evolution are numerous.  They support the contention that Reason is just a special case of a universal process by which information about the environment is tested against that world and retained or eliminated by feedback from that testing (it is being naturally selected by the evidence).


Campbell, D. T. (1960). Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought as in other knowledge processes. Psychological Review 67: 380–400.

Popper, K. & Eccles, J. (1977).  The self and its brain.  Berlin/London: Springer-Verlag.

Richards, R. (1987).  Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary theories of mind and behavior.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

This blog is an adaptation and updating of material from R. A. Barkley (2012). Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved.  New York: Guilford Press.  ©Guilford Press, 2012.  Adapted and reprinted with permission.

Dr. Barkley is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Virginia Commonwealth University Health Center and the Virginia Treatment Center for Children, Richmond, VA. 

On “Nonbeliever Nation”

May 31, 2014 in From RRNA Speakers

flag for nonbeliever nationby Richmond Reason and Naturalism Association’s Ernest Wilson, speaker at the June 17th, 2014 Topical Evening:  Nonbeliever Nation

During a 4 hour layover in the Atlanta airport, I came upon Nonbeliever Nation, The Rise of Secular America by David Niose in the religion section of an airport bookstore. I was surprised and intrigued by the title and after a short look through purchased the book.  I was not disappointed and believe you will also be interested, intrigued and perhaps motivated to follow some of his suggestions to for secular activism .

David Noise is president of the Secular Coalition for America, a Washington lobbying group which some of us have supported in the past. He is a practicing attorney who has represented secular interests in the courts as well as author of  the Psycology Today blog Our Humanity, Naturally.

Noise starts off by detailing the proud secular history of America which many of us may not be familiar with giving the lie to the statement that America is a Christian country. He then traces the rise of the Religious Right and the great harm this has done to the country. But there is hope because secularist can do much to oppose this and advance their interests. He urges secular people to stand up for their beliefs and become politically active. He offers suggestions for how this can be done. All and all I think you will agree that this is an exciting and important book.

5 Alternatives to 12-step Meetings

February 10, 2014 in From RRNA Speakers

SMART blog pic

by Roxanne Allen, with SMART Recovery, speaker at RRNA’s Topical Evening:  Addiction, on February 18th, 2014

New Options for Addiction Recovery 

In the 1730s Native Americans organized the first abstinence-based  recovery circles. Since that time, a variety of groups have come and  gone, but the efficacy of self-help meetings for addiction recovery has  been well researched and proven to be effective in many ways.

In the 20th century the most well known mutual support groups were  based on the 12-step model, the most widely available of these being  Alcoholics Anonymous. For many years, the 12-step model was an integral  part of the treatment program for many of those who sought professional  assistance to help them quit an addiction.  Over time, the public grew  to perceive that regular attendance and participation in 12-step  meetings was a requirement of recovery.  However, as addiction research has progressed, we now know that there is not one program that is helpful for everyone.  People are different and have different needs. For example, many  people do better with a model that does not involve a spiritual  component; many people do better with a self-empowering approach.  We  also know that people seeking recovery from addiction have a better  outcome when they are able to make informed choices about the mutual  support groups they attend.

Many paths to recovery

There are a number of support groups and alternatives to 12-step  recovery that stand ready to help people overcome their addiction to  substances and behaviors. Each program has merit, and the best outcome  occurs when an individual selects a program that best matches their  needs and beliefs. (Note: some people find that a combination of  programs is more helpful to them than a single program.)

SMART Recovery® 

SMART (Self Management and Recovery Training) is the leading  self-empowering addiction support group. SMART participants learn tools  for recovery based on the latest scientific research.

SMART provides a 4-Point Program:1. Building and Maintaining Motivation; 2. Coping with Urges; 3.  Managing Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors; and 4. Living a Balanced  life. Tools  include Stages of Change, Change Plan Worksheet,  Cost-Benefit Analysis, Hierarchy of Values, ABCs of REBT for Urge Coping and Emotional Upsets, DISARM (Destructive Imagery and  Self-talk  Awareness & Refusal Method), Role-playing and Rehearsing ,  Brainstorming, and more.  Tools can be found on their website.

Women for Sobriety

Women for Sobriety (WFS) is the first and only self-help program  accounting for the special problems women have in recovery, specifically the need for feelings of self-value and self-worth, and the need to  expatiate feelings of guilt and humiliation. Their purpose is to help  all women with addiction through the discovery of self, gained by  sharing experiences, hopes and encouragement with other women in similar circumstances. The

“New Life” Acceptance Program includes thirteen statements to aid those participating in the program, and can be found on their website.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Ourselves

SOS takes a self-empowerment approach to recovery, and addresses sobriety (abstinence) as “Priority One, no matter what!”  The program credits the individual for achieving and maintaining  his/her own sobriety, and respects recovery in any form. There are six  suggested guidelines for sobriety, including “Sobriety is our priority”,  and “We are each responsible for our lives and our sobriety”.  The  others can be found on their website.


LifeRing offers sober, secular self-help to abstain from alcohol and  non-medically-indicated drugs by “relying on our own power and the  support of others”. The program operates according to the “3S” Philosophy: 1. Sobriety, 2. Secularity, 3. Self-Help. Meetings are friendly, confidential, non-judgmental gatherings of  peers, and the atmosphere is relaxed, practical and positive.

Moderation Management

Moderation Management (MM) offers education, behavioral change  techniques and peer support for problem drinkers seeking to decrease  their drinking — whether to moderate levels or to total abstinence. MM  offers a variety of behavioral methods for change, guidelines for  responsible drinking, and tools to measure progress. The program follows  9 Steps Toward Moderation and Positive Lifestyle Changes which can be found on their website.

While these programs may not be as widely available geographically as the 12-step programs, they are available to anyone with an internet  connection. Each program offers online services in addition to  face-to-face meetings.

Addiction can create huge health, legal and personal problems for  those afflicted. The good news is that there are many pathways to  recovery, many options available, and each individual deserves to find  what works best for them.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

July 30, 2013 in From RRNA Speakers


By Ronnie Childs, RRNA Member and speaker at August 1st, 2013 meeting “Two Ecosystems”

I’m a far cry from a scientist, but science is one of my favorite topics in which to indulge my bookworm tendencies.  One topic I’ve been coming across over and over recently is the human microbiome, which is a fairly new term—my Spell-Check just jumped on it, in fact. It refers collectively to the trillions of microscopic organisms that exist on, around, and in us, and which is altogether separate from us genetically. It is generally considered non-pathogenic; in fact, there is a great deal of it we can’t live without. According to hologenome theory, another Spell-Check reject, it plays a big part in our development, physiology, immunity, nutrition, speciation and other bodily systems.  It acts symbiotically with the host to provide traits we didn’t need to evolve on our own. Within the body of a healthy adult, these microbes outnumber the host cells by about ten to one, although in aggregate they would only weigh about two or three pounds, the cells being much smaller than human cells.

This is a hot field of research.  The findings of the NIH’s recently concluded Human Microbiome Project is providing us with tons of discoveries, some of it quite surprising, and leading to some new ways to look at life on earth.  Take medicine, for example.  Since the advent of antibiotics, a good deal of medical treatment has been to kill-kill-kill (bacteria, that is). We’ve known for a while that antibiotics have been grossly overused, and that germs have become resistant to them.  Now we’re hearing about probiotics (oops! You-know-what again), the opposite of anti-biotics.  The general idea is that instead of killing microbes you introduce microbes into the ailing system, which will re-balance the respective microbial population, resulting in a healthy mix–The good guys will hold the bad guys in check. By speciation, mentioned above, I mean that members of some (non-human) species cannot successfully mate with other members unless their respective microbiomes are compatible. Also, our immune systems exhibit a great deal of dependence on our gut flora. It’s been pretty well-established that it is possible to be too clean, that microbe exposure, particularly in children, plays a vital role in the development of a well-functioning immune system, which can provide life-long protection from disease.  An important microbial infusion for infants comes from mother’s milk.  Some researchers have taken hologenome theory so far as to propose that lactation evolved not as a source of nutrition but for the immunity benefits it confers upon the child.

These are just a few greatly over-simplified examples presented in a slim overview.  I could go on forever relating what’s out there on this rich topic.  Related articles are popping up just about everywhere you look, in the popular press as well as the more scientific.  For what it’s worth, I think big changes are going to come about as a result of this emerging research.  We’ll see.  For starters, try Googling fecal transplants.

What is Naturalism?

March 8, 2013 in Naturalism

plant close up

The “naturalism” in RRNA’s title refers to the perspective that nothing supernatural actually exists.  Almost all naturalists see science as the best means for understanding what does exist, and it’s probably fair to say that naturalists tend to think that everything is physical.  Naturalism is a more thorough position than atheism.  Many atheists are naturalists, but if you are a naturalist, beyond a disbelief in supernatural gods, you also do not believe in many other supernatural suppositions, such as ghosts, nonphysical energies, and a nonphysical soul.  Many humanists, Buddhists, skeptics, and freethinkers consider themselves naturalists.  Early interest in naturalism among the people who formed RRNA in 2004 came from the brights movement and Tom Clark’s website naturalism.org.