Networks of Gene Regulation, Neural Development and the Evolution of General Capabilities, Such as Human Empathy

Zeitschrift Für Naturforschung C - A Journal of Bioscience 53:716-722 (1998)
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A network of gene regulation organized in a hierarchical and combinatorial manner is crucially involved in the development of the neural network, and has to be considered one of the main substrates of genetic change in its evolution. Though qualitative features may emerge by way of the accumulation of rather unspecific quantitative changes, it is reasonable to assume that at least in some cases specific combinations of regulatory parts of the genome initiated new directions of evolution, leading to novel capabilities of the brain. These notions are applied, in this paper, to the evolution of the capability of cognition-based human empa­thy. It is suggested that it has evolved as a secondary effect of the evolution of strategic thought. Development of strategies depends on abstract representations of one’s own pos­sible future states in one’s own brain to allow assessment of their emotional desirability, but also on the representation and emotional evaluation of possible states of others, allowing anticipation of their behaviour. This is best achieved if representations of others are con­nected to one’s own emotional centres in a manner similar to self-representations. For this reason, the evolution of the human brain is assumed to have established representations with such linkages. No group selection is involved, because the quality of strategic thought affects the fitness of the individual. A secondary effect of this linkage is that both the actual states and the future perspectives of others elicit vicarious emotions, which may contribute to the motivations of altruistic behaviour.

Author's Profile

Alfred Gierer
Max-Planck-Institute of Developmental Biology, Tuebingen, Germany


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