How Reason Differs from Faith

January 28, 2018 in Uncategorized


This is the final 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.

Parts I-III of this serial blog on the nature of Reason have argued that Reason (and Science) are very similar in their procedures to evolution by natural selection. That the steps of biological evolution that are understood to operate at the genetic level of information can be applied usefully to understanding the ways in which other forms of knowledge can evolve is known as Universal Darwinism. Viewing Reason as an instance of a universal process of the evolution of knowledge about the natural world can give us a better idea of what is meant by Reasoning (critical thinking) and its more systematic equivalent – Science. We can also see why Reason/Science are in direct contrast to Faith — knowledge derived from authority and accepted on despite all evidence to the contrary, as in religion or other forms of dogma. In both Reasoning and Faith, statements about the natural world are proposed (knowledge claims are made). But that is where the similarity between them ends because they differ fundamentally in so many important ways as described below:

• Reason (and so Science) requires that the knowledge claim (information) be logical (noncontradictory). It must also be coherent (internally consistent as well as understandable as such to others). And it must be tested against the environment both through current testing (experimental trials) as well as against the evidence already accumulated from prior relevant testing (the evidence base).

o Faith does not require these key elements. It is why articles accepted on Faith can be illogical (contradictory), incoherent (gibberish or nonsense), inconsistent with reality, often incapable of being easily understood by outsiders to the Faith, and not open to and even being hostile to criticism.

• Like natural selection, Reason/Science engages in criticism of the proposed knowledge claim to see if it can withstand such criticism (it tests the knowledge claim and evaluates the results as they pertain to that knowledge claim).

o Faith does not engage in any such testing of its information for its conformity to the natural world. It does not engage in criticizing its knowledge claim. There is no natural (environmental) selection that is taking place. After all, Faith is defined as acceptance of a belief despite all evidence to the contrary (the same definition as a delusion in psychology). If there is any criticism involved in Faith, it is done by the authorities in reference to prior or existing dogma or scripture, not by testing it against the natural world.

• Like genetic evolution, Reason/Science discards information that does not conform to the evidence or environmental testing (the information fails to survive). It retains only information that can survive such forms of criticism. Hence the knowledge claims developed through Reason evolve to become more accurate representations of the natural world and hence more useful at predicting it and adapting to it. Those claims are being naturally selected for such conformity (more accurately, their nonconformity).

o Faith does not selectively discard its information based on criticism (testing and evidence) and so the conformity of its knowledge to the natural world does not evolve (improve in truth, accuracy, utility, predictive accuracy, or veracity). It remains stagnant until some subsequent authority revises the dogma, which worshippers are supposed to accept “on faith.”

• Similar to genetic evolution, this makes knowledge acquired by Reason/Science tentative or provisional, dynamic and ever improving in its accuracy and utility. It is constantly testing and revising and so refining knowledge about the natural world.

o Knowledge acquired by Faith is, in contrast, unchanging or static, dogmatic or unquestioned, progressively stale, and incapable of accurately representing the natural world. Thus it is of little utility in dealing with much of that natural world, and grows increasingly irrelevant at doing so as Reason advances its more accurate form of knowledge acquisition and refinement.

• Just as in genetic evolution, errors (mutations) in reasoning or the mistakes in our hypotheses may lead to novel pieces of new information, some of which are useful. Reason/Science treasures the mistakes or errors that may exist in its knowledge claims, because it can explore them further, and use them creatively to make new knowledge propositions. Those can be tested against the natural world and prior evidence to see if they are even more accurate than the prior propositions. Hence Reason is a highly creative enterprise that learns from its mistakes and develops progressively more accurate representations of the world that serve to progressively improve human welfare, quality of life, and survival.

o Faith, by contrast, shows no concern for its errors or mistakes (it is infallible or perfect as originally proposed); indeed it makes none. And so it does not use them to craft more accurate representations or knowledge claims about the natural world, and thus cannot benefit from its mistake-making. Therefore, Faith makes no similar progressive improvements to human welfare, quality of life, or survival. It remains a stagnant body of dogma. For this reason, Faith-based social groups or even entire cultures remain stunted, as if preserved in amber, and do not progressively improve the human quality of life, human welfare, and rates of survival as does Reason/Science.

• Reason and Science involve a massive activity of creative destruction, just as does biological evolution, in which earlier knowledge claims are discarded (die or cease to get replicated) in favor of progressively more accurate renditions of the natural world. In this sense, like genetic evolution, it can be seen as incredibly inefficient and wasteful. Just as most species that ever lived are extinct, most knowledge claims about the world are also extinct (no longer in use) than are currently accepted (provisionally) as useful knowledge about the natural world.

o Faith/Religion and its associated dogma do not purge themselves of useless information in this way. So they retain many knowledge claims that, when contrasted with the available evidence (usually outside of the religious dogma), they no longer serve to accurately represent the material world, if they ever did so.

• Similar to genetic evolution, the change in knowledge brought about by Reason and Science occurs in gradual changes to the knowledge base, not wholesale leaps. Gradual does not mean slow change, but change in small steps. Those small changes can occur rapidly but they are small because, just as in genetic evolution, large changes to the existing knowledge base are almost always fatal to survival and replication (the accuracy of the information that is modeling the environment).

o Faith/Religion and its associated knowledge base change little over time.

• Similar to genetic evolution, Reason and Science are callously indifferent to the survival of the unit housing the information, in this case your mind, and especially your personal beliefs about the meaning of your life or of all life for that matter. All that matters in Reason is that the information derived from Reason and Science yield information that is simply good at getting itself replicated into the next generation of ideas (and getting us replicated at the genetic level along with it). That is usually because Reason often yields progressively more adapted (accurate) knowledge about the natural world. The more accurate information thus gets itself retained and that lets it get used again in later experiments or trials in trying to better understand that world. Reason and Science let the chips of knowledge fall where they may, taking no prisoners, and playing no favorites, regardless of their personal impact on someone and their belief’s about the meaning of life.

o Faith and the religions associated with it are hardly indifferent to personal belief. Indeed, they seek to be the explanatory basis of your personal beliefs about the meaning of your life and all human life for that matter.

• Just as in biological evolution, expanding and exposing ourselves to new environments with our inquiries based on Reason/Science can serve to create new knowledge, new categories or forms of knowledge and even new branches of knowledge that did not previously exist. Just as changes in the environment of a subset of a biological species can result in the eventual emergence of a new species from the original one, changing the environments in which we are curious and make inquiries based on Reason/Science can serve to create new “species” or forms and branches of knowledge not previously known. For a moment, just study the types and categories of knowledge we now possess based on Reason against historically earlier periods and you can see a veritable bush or tree like process of ever more branches forming from original more general ones just as we see in the tree or bush of life forms at the biological level.

o Faith/Religion do not encourage and even may act to stifle such curiosity about new environments that lead to new fields of inquiry and knowledge about the natural world. Like a stunted bush or sapling, Faith does not lead to a dynamic growth in knowledge about the world or in new fields of knowledge as does Reason. Faith in fact is frequently hostile to curiosity about the world and the new knowledge it yields as it may serve to undermine its authoritarian or faith-based knowledge claims.

• Like genetic evolution using sexual intercourse and reproduction, Reason and Science benefit from the exchange of one’s information with others and vice versa through social intercourse (via conversation, debate, publication, etc.) either directly, as in conversation and pedagogy, or indirectly as in listening to recorded lectures or reading the material written by others. Through such informational exchanges, novel ideas can develop more rapidly (more recombinations of existing information can come into existence) and create the opportunity for more beneficial discoveries and inventions.

o Faith and Religion do not encourage the exchange of ideas with others, especially those who disagree with one’s faith-based beliefs. Nonbelievers are infidels and exchange with them is discouraged if not banned outright and even punished. Thus, like inbreeding with close relatives of similar genetic identities at the genetic level, information at higher levels such as intellectual knowledge has no chance under Faith/Religion of evolving novel and useful ideas from exchanging information with others. Instead, it likely involves a reiteration of what is already known (dogma) when interacting with others and thus a stagnation of personal knowledge, development, and discovery. It may even lead to the occurrence and retaining of detrimental mutations to their knowledge that can reduce the overall fitness and adaptability of their knowledge base.

• Reason and Science do not accept the existence of the supernatural (and thus are called Naturalism). That is because knowledge claims about the supernatural and how it may intersect and interact in the natural world cannot be tested especially against the natural world. That is to say, the claims about the supernatural are not testable or falsifiable – that is the essence of scientific knowledge as Karl Popper explained.

o The knowledge claims about the supernatural provided by Faith and Religion are illogical (contradictory), often incoherent to outsiders, unempirical (devoid of evidence from the natural world), based solely on authority (received wisdom) or revelation (subjective experiences), lacking in operational (testable) definitions, capable of explaining away disconfirming evidence, and thus do not progressively adapt their knowledge to the natural world.

• As a consequence, Reason (and Science) and Faith (and Religion) are conceptual opposites that cannot be logically reconciled (they are contradictory ways of knowing). This is so even if it is possible for both to exist within the same compartmentalized human mind as that often occurs even in many educated but religious people. They employ alternating and contradictory belief systems depending on the context. The fact that people can operate psychologically in both realms of knowledge does not make those realms any more logically compatible but speaks only to the potential for irrationality in the human mind.

By understanding Reason (and Science) to be forms of Universal Darwinism, one can see that it is replication of information with environmental testing (natural selection by criticism) and selective retention. In doing so, the nature of Reason can be made clearer and also improved in its use and efficiency at discovering new knowledge about the natural world. And it can show in numerous ways how Reason contrasts markedly with the practice of Faith, its opposite form of understanding the natural world. This shows why in the history of humanity and especially modernity, Faith (and Religion) have had to retreat in their explanations of the natural world into the nonexistent supernatural one as Reason and Science have advanced useful human knowledge about that natural world. Faith/Religion have had to content themselves with statements about the supernatural world and about the implications of that supernatural world for a personal meaning of life. Faith simply cannot compete with Reason in developing progressively more accurate knowledge about and utility in dealing with the natural world.

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

What Are the Various Forms of Universal Evolution?

January 28, 2018 in Uncategorized


This is the third 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 installment will be posted shortly.

As explained in Parts I and II of this serial blog, 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 retention and environmental selection). Therefore, any form of information can evolve provided it is associated with the 9 critical steps that apply to evolution as explained in Part II. In Part III, I explain what may be the different levels of evolution, or the different types of knowledge or information about the natural world that is being accumulated by a process of natural selection.

The general algorithm of evolution explained in Part II is now understood to operate at several different levels, each involving a different type of information (Richards, 1987). Each level is partially dependent on and derived from the levels below it. Also, each higher level has a faster generation (replication and retention) time than those below it. This allows information to be accumulated and refined at an increasingly faster rate than occurs at lower levels of evolution. For instance, at the genetic level of evolution species can take years to reproduce their offspring (copies). Therefore, it can take years, centuries, or millennia for many species to evolve or change and become better adapted to the world. However, even at the genetic level some species are known to replicate quickly (viruses) within minutes to hours. And so they can evolve (and so adapt) more quickly to their environments than can slower reproducing species, such as humans, elephants, and land tortoises. Faster generation times lead to faster evolution by natural selection.

The different levels of Universal Darwinism that have been identified are genetic (slowest)(Dawkins, 1996; Ridley, Mark, 1996), learning by operant conditioning (Skinner, 1981, 1984), vicarious or observational learning (Donald, 1991, 1993), visual imagery or ideational learning (overt and covert rehearsal of ideas or mental representations to the self; a form of mental simulation; Donald, 1991, 1993; Lumsden & Wilson, 1982), gestural communication and language (Blackmore, 1999; Dawkins, 1976), thinking (fastest)(Barkley, 1997, 2001; Popper & Eccles, 1977), and cultural-artifactual (Durham, 1991). Each level relies on a different storage device to both store and accumulate information that has been tested against the environment and retained (or discarded). Each uses a different means of encoding that information. Each uses a different mechanism to replicate or reproduce that information and testing it against the environment. Nevertheless, each is a specific instance of universal evolution in which the environment acts to select which information survives to be retained and replicated in subsequent tests against that environment. Simply put, the environment continuously acts to criticize the information being reproduced at each level. It determines what information survives to get replicated again. All of the steps in the algorithm are believed to exist at each of these levels.

Humans benefit from all levels and modes of this type of informational inheritance (evolution) that results in the accumulation of different forms or levels of information about the environment. Each level provides a progressively more rapid adjustment of the information to changes in its environment – the process of adaptation. That is because at each new level, the time between trials is shortened considerably, permitting the testing of information against the environment to progress more rapidly. More trials can be executed in the same unit of time as we move up to each new level. That leads to faster and faster evolution of that form of information. The number of levels and modes of transmission of information are debatable and unimportant here. What is important is the argument for a general process of Universal Darwinism that governs the acquisition of knowledge (information) about the environment in various forms and at various levels.

Several key ideas should be noted about biological evolution that also apply to Universal Darwinism.

• Different species vary in how many of these levels of universal evolution they possess. Thus they must differ in how rapidly they can accumulate and modify information about and hence adapt to changes in their environment. Humans, in contrast to all other species, benefit from all of these levels, making us among the most adaptable and hence adaptive species on the planet.

• Moreover, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett has argued, freedom evolves. That is, with each new level of informational evolution a species possesses, the more degrees of freedom it has from being controlled by the most immediate or proximal aspects of the surrounding environment. Such freedom does not mean a complete lack of environmental control such that one’s actions are entirely free of influence by the physical environment. But it does mean that such environmental influence or control has been shifted both upward (to higher forms of information), outward (to greater spatial distances and to social others) and forward (across greater temporal distances, or a delayed time period to anticipated future events).

• Furthermore, some of these levels of informational evolution are intra-personal in form (occurring within individuals) (i.e., operant conditioning, ideational [visual-spatial reasoning] and symbolic [linguistic] levels, or individual thinking) and so contribute to the acquisition of personal knowledge about the environment. Other levels are inter-personal or shared and describe the accumulation of information within a pool of knowledge that exists across or among individuals (i.e., gene pools, imitative culture, a common language, archived culture and artifacts such as libraries). While both intra- and inter-individual forms result in the individual having more knowledge about the environment, the second also allows information to be accumulated and stored outside of a person (such as in archives), both across individuals and across generations independent of any single individual. (Note – I believe that there is an alternation occurring between the inter-personal and the intra-personal as new levels of informational evolution come into existence. It is likely that the next level of evolution will occur within some technology device, as in artificial intelligence within a computer.)

Reason (Critical Thinking) is a Form of Universal Darwinism

It is being argued here that reasoning, or critical thinking, and its more systematic and ritualized counterpart known as Science are both a special form of this process of Universal Darwinism. As explained in Part I, Reason and Science are an algorithm that resembles that of evolution – a systematic means by which information about the environment is proposed (replicated), tested against the environment (criticized) for its conformity, selectively retained, mutated (reconfigured from its mistakes) and then proposed and tested again in its modified form. Reasoning occurs within the mind of a person (critical thinking) and is a combination of ideational and symbolic/linguistic levels of evolution though it can also benefit from direct trial and error experience (operant conditioning). The knowledge claim being proposed, tested, mutated, retained and thus evolving over time is retained in the individual brain and is being replicated by that brain through its actions. Yet it can also occur between two people as in discussion and debate where the information is shared between people and retained in their individual brains. Science is the much more systematic, codified, recorded, and cultural version of reasoning where the information that is evolving is subjected to even stricter means of testing and is retained in scientific archives.

The discovery of the specific steps involved in Reason (knowledge evolution) and later Science and their similarity to evolution allowed people to intentionally and more efficiently gather and modify human knowledge about nature rather than accumulate it by trial and error or mere happenstance. In fits and starts, beginning with the Greek philosopher Thales on the importance of criticism to refining human knowledge, as well as other Greek philosophers, our understanding of the nature of Reasoning has progressed. Later this included the philosophical naturalists during the Enlightenment, and then on down to others such as Karl Popper who specifically argued that scientific knowledge is discovered via a Darwinian process (Popper & Eccles, 1977). In discovering the essence of Reason (and later, Science), humans have learned how to intentionally guide a more efficient means of acquiring knowledge concerning the natural world. That use of understanding evolution and using that understanding to guide the acquisition of knowledge is similar to using our knowledge of biological evolution to modify existing species (as in agriculture and animal husbandry) and even to the creation of new species.



Barkley, R. A. (1997). ADHD and the nature of self-control. New York: Guilford.

Barkley, R. A. (2001). Executive functions and self-regulation: An evolutionary neuropsychological perspective. Neuropsychology Review, 11, 1-29.

Barkley, R. A. (2012). Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved. New York: Guilford Press.

Blackmore, S. (1999). The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford.

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

Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1987). The blind watchmaker: Why the evidence for evolution reveals a universe without design. New York: W. W. Norton.

Dawkins, R. (1996). Climbing mount improbable. New York: W. W. Norton.

Deacon, T. D. (1997). The symbolic species: The co-evolution of language and the brain. New York: W. W. Norton.

Dennett, D. C. (1995). Darwin’s dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dennett, D. C. (2003). Freedom evolves. New York: Viking Press.

Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Donald, M. (1993). Precis of origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16: 737–791.

Durham, W. H. (1991). Co-evolution: genes, culture, and human diversity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lumsden, C. J., & Wilson, E. O. (1982). Precis of Genes, Mind, and Culture. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 5, 1–37.

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.

Ridley, Mark (1996). Evolution (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Science.

Skinner, B. F. (1981). Selection by consequences. Science, 213, 501-504.

Skinner, B. F. (1984). Selection by consequences. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 7, 477–510.

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.

What Is Evolution?

January 26, 2018 in Uncategorized

This is the second 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 two installments will be posted over the remaining days before the 30th.

Reason is a Type of Evolution (Universal Darwinism)

Part II: What is Evolution?

Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D.

As I explained in Part I of this serial blog, Reason (and the Science based on it) share many similarities with biological (genetic) evolution by natural selection. Both involve the proposal and testing of information against the natural world for its agreement or disagreement with (conformance to) that world. The information so tested may be successful enough at agreeing with the natural world that it may be retained (survive) and replicated or reproduced again. Or it may so disagree with the natural world that it is eliminated from further survival and reproduction. In this way, the information or knowledge about the environment becomes increasingly more accurate (better adapted) to the natural world. Thus, Reason and biological evolution can both be viewed as specific instances of a general process by which information (no matter how coded and reproduced) is tested against and naturally selected by feedback from the natural world or environment.

This more general process of evolution is known as Universal Darwinism. It argues that the algorithm or set of steps involved in evolution is not limited to the genetic level of information but operates at every level at which knowledge about the environment is being accumulated. I am not the first to make this argument. 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 retention and environmental selection).

The general algorithm or set of steps involved in evolution by natural selection has been the most well-studied at the biological or genetic level of information. One can take the 9 steps that characterize biological evolution and just rephrase them in a more general way that they might apply to any means by which information about the environment is being encoded, reproduced, tested, selected, and retained to be reproduced or used again. Those 9 steps are described below. From such a simple, stupid, and blind (unguided or un-designed) algorithm, complex forms of knowledge about the natural world can emerge.

The Steps Involved in the Evolution Algorithm

For any system of information to evolve, as in genetic evolution, it must involve at least these procedures or steps. While I separate them into 9, other writers on this subject may collapse some of the steps together. The number does not matter but the procedures do.

(1) There Needs to be a Storage Device: There must be a reliable storage device or memory base – some means by which information can be reliably stored and accessed. At the genetic level, we know this is DNA, although in the very early stages of the evolution of life it might have been RNA.

(2) Information Needs to Get Encoded: There must be a simple and reliable means by which information can be coded into the storage device. In the case of genetic evolution, this is just four little bits of information called nucleic acids that here we can simply call A, G, C, T.

(3) There Needs to be Some Means of Replication (copying, trials): At its core, the very essence or even definition of life is self-replication – a piece of genetic information is making a copy of itself. For evolution to occur there must be some means by which the information is copied (replicated or reproduced). In the case of genetic evolution, the very first living molecule was the first one to copy itself. That information functioned to create an organism. The organism was then tested in an environment to see how well it could survive and reproduce. Each replication or act of reproduction can be considered a trial. The copies being reproduced will be judged by the environment (see below) for their fitness or conformity to that environment – their relative capacity to survive to replicate again.

(4) There Needs to be Good But Imperfect Fidelity of Copying: Replication must create a highly similar copy to its original version. DNA serves to do this very well at the genetic level of evolution. However, no copy will be perfectly identical to its original or template. Errors always creep into the copying process because the world changes from one moment to the next. Those changes alone can affect the copying. Also, storage devices, like DNA, will show entropy or decay just as do all physical entities. This decay can cause errors in the knowledge encoding mechanism. But all that is needed for the process to continue is that the copy be good enough to work to serve its purpose – to replicate the information again.

(5) Mistakes (Mutations) Must Be Made: While this restates the above point that mistakes occur in the copying process, the emphasis here is on the mistakes themselves – they are a critical part of evolution. Fallibility (errors) is an essential ingredient in evolution because it creates variation in the information across the replications — a new piece or arrangement of information that did not previously exist. This leads to a variety of versions of the information being tested against the environment. The mistakes happen by accident and not by design, but they happen. Errors are ubiquitous in all of life. It is this blind, stupid, unconscious mistake-making that is the source of all new variations in information at the genetic level of evolution. The variation in information (genes) creates variations in the individual organisms built by and carrying that information. And that variation across individuals is then offered up to the environment to be judged for its survival value and a chance to reproduce again. This point cannot be over-emphasized – making mistakes is therefore absolutely crucial in the process of how evolution achieves new, more complex and better-adapted (efficient and functional) life forms (the manifestations of the accumulated knowledge). Most copying mistakes have no significant functional effect on the copy and many mistakes may actually be detrimental to its getting replicated again. Indeed some of the errors are absolutely destructive and may make the copy so deformed that it cannot do what it used to do and so cannot replicate or survive in that environment. Its likelihood of survival (being repeated) is decreased and it may not even last until the next copying takes place (it dies before reproducing). But every once in a great while the mistake is an improvement to the original information base (design); it is useful for the organism and its function. It conforms better to reality. And so it is more likely to get replicated and retained again than the original version. The beneficial error need only be 1% of all mistakes – that’s enough for evolution to occur over multiple replications. And it will eventually result in improvements in the previous design. That is because this new, more useful information (mutations) is replicated more often over time than the original version. For instance, at the genetic level, mutations can occur in the sequences of information coded in the DNA and these mistakes can have effects on the functioning of that DNA. If those mistakes improve functioning they are likely to get replicated again. Overtime, its copies will out-survive and out-reproduce the original versions and so replace those of the original version from which it mutated. And so on.

(6) There is a Selecting Environment: For information to exist, it must exist some where. That “where” is physical reality – the natural world. It is often called the environment but that just means a local region of reality. Every specific environment in which information may exist and accumulate by evolution has specific characteristics that make it different from every other specific situation or setting. Some aspect of the environment affects the likelihood that some copies will survive while others may be less fit and so destroyed in that environment. In this way, one or more specific characteristics of the environment serve as a mechanism for selection. This is why genetic evolution is called natural selection. There is no intention being exercised here in creating the information – there is no grand designer guiding the process. If the environment has absolutely no feature that has any influence on the survival of the copies, then no evolution will take place other than the eventual piling-up of mistakes over time in subsequent copies. If this goes on long enough, copying may no longer be possible. The information base is then in a sense dead; it is merely junk. But this is unlikely because specific settings often do have specific features that are going to have some effect, even if a small one, on which copies have a better chance of being replicated the next time around compared to other copies. Combined with imperfect copying discussed above, the environment by its very nature selects the information (knowledge) that best conforms to it among the variations in the information copies that may exist. It does so by adversely affecting the copies that are not as conforming. Over repeated trials the information becomes closer and closer to conforming to reality (accuracy or truth value) with each trial. To the extent that environmental features have any effect on the copying process, they are acting (blindly) to select some strings or forms of information over others in the information base that get to survive and reproduce again.

(7) The Environment Criticizes or Judges the Conformity of the Information to It. Inherent in all material reality is this capacity to have an adverse shaping or selective influence on any information that is being stored, copied, and thus tested within that environment. The environment doesn’t actually choose the good copies but selectively acts to eliminate those less fit or suited to that environment. It is a negative influence – a culling of the less fit. By default, the copies that remain are better suited to existing in that environment. This selecting out or culling function of the less fit copies by the environment can be thought of as Criticism. It is the negative feedback from the environment concerning whether the information being tested better conforms or not to that environment. The more it conforms, the more correct or accurate it is in modeling that environment; that is, the less the environment disagrees with it. The less it conforms, the more the environment disagrees with it. This is a comparative process indicating how well the information or knowledge being put forth from the storage device matches the environment. In a sense, it is about how well the information is modeling reality. In any particular trial, such criticism has the effect of making some versions of the information less likely to survive to the next trial. Criticism is simply disagreement. Here then is another secret to the development of all knowledge of the natural world anywhere in the universe – it must be criticized by its environment! The relatively less fit information is getting continuously removed by that environment such that the information that survives is a more accurate (better fitted) piece of information concerning that environment than were earlier versions of information.

(8) And There Should be Environmental Change: When something happens, (it could be nearly anything) that changes the environment from what it was previously, that is all that is needed for evolution to occur. In genetic evolution, this change in the original environment is the origin of new species emerging over repeated trials from older ones. This often happens when some members of a species migrate to a new environment. At other times it occurs when the environment undergoes some significant change for one subset of the species (copies of the information) but not others. In either case, new selection processes or pressures exist in the new environment that can differ from the prior one. These new features of the environment now provide new and different feedback than did the original environment. This new feedback is often called a selection pressure. It operates to guide or pressure evolution of that subset of organisms into a new path of evolution. The organisms (copies of information) may have been better adapted to the prior environment but their current form may now prove to be less suitable (conform) to the new one. If the change to the environment is too extreme, the organisms may not be able to survive at all. But if some do, and as mutations occur in them, some of those mutations may offer a better selective advantage for that organism to survive in that new environment. Over time, such beneficial mutations can cause enough change in the original species such that it becomes a new species (can no longer interbreed with members of the original one).

(9) Evolution Benefits from Intercourse – Exchanging Information with Others: Although biological evolution can occur without the exchange of genetic material between organisms, as was likely the case in the early stages of life on Earth, it benefits substantially from doing so. This explains why many species evolved sexual reproduction. By exchanging pieces of genetic information with other members of the species (or as with viruses, other species entirely) new information and especially new arrangements of that information enters the information base that did not previously reside there. Such exchanges of information allow the more rapid rate of occurrence of novel recombinations of that information, some of which are likely to prove more beneficial to survival and replication (reproduction) than the original combination. This usually occurs at the genetic level via sexual intercourse. But it need not be by sex as some asexual species of viruses and bacteria can give up and also collect pieces of genetic material from others with whom they physically interact.


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

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.


What is Reason? How Is It Like Evolution?

January 21, 2018 in Uncategorized by RRNALeadership

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 by RRNALeadership

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 by RRNALeadership

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 RRNALeadership


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 by RRNALeadership

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