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Behavioral Functions

Major biological processes and their human implications

  1. Mating and Birthing

The function of mating and birthing is obviously reproduction, sustaining the existence of an organism’s species and passing along traits that made reproduction possible. It is easy to see the kind of advantage reproduction enables: a nonreplicating bacterium can be outnumbered one to a million in less than a day. The eukaryotic (multi-celled) lineage evolved its structural template via three stages of symbiosis indicated by the relatedness of microorganism lineages to eukaryote genetic material. First, a single-celled organism from phylum Archaea with a particularly efficient genetic system was engulfed by another prokaryote, becoming the nucleus. Then bacteria efficient at metabolizing sugar were incorporated, evolving into mitochondria. Finally, cyanobacteria capable of photosynthesis, the harnessing of light energy to produce sugar, were subsumed, the origin of chloroplasts. From this foundation, the replication processes and metabolic cycles of eukaryotes in light-driven ecosystems arose, diversifying into the plethora of macroscopic lifeforms that exist today.

Once organisms began proliferating, increasing in size and formidability, it required more energy and functionality to produce offspring and guarantee success, resulting in all kinds of bioactive structures and sequences. At macroscopic levels, most functionality is related to the need of supporting growth from egg to reproductive maturity. The most primitive species produce at least thousands of exposed embryos, released or abandoned to be mostly consumed by predators or otherwise destroyed. Larger and more recently evolved organisms usually give birth to a small clutch of shell protected embryos, often guarded in a nest by parents for some length of time before hatching, or at least hidden. A major component of and selection pressure upon the development of complex behavior is the benefit of division of labor between nesting males and females. Rearing of young, a metabolically costly but behavior-enhancing commitment of time and energy, seems essential to the evolution of cognition, as duration of parental care is roughly proportional to intelligence. In mammals, a physiological design evolved that forces parents to defend eggs with their lives, as embryos grow into a high-functioning fetus inside the body. Though reproduction has universal impact on biological form, it can be made subsidiary to competing adaptive demands, an obvious case being cranium size in newborn humans, indispensable to our thinking and thus the species’ survival, but often fatal to a mother during delivery without contemporary health care.

2. Acquisition of Energy and Nutrients

Acquisition of energy and nutrients began with the preservation of metabolic reactions within a membranous structure, the origin of cells as the fundamental organic unit; all lifeforms are composed of them. At first these cellular environments were limited to a small range, which scientists hypothesize as deep sea hydrothermal vents emitting inexhaustible supplies of organic molecules. There may have been modest expansion in trait spectrums as microorganisms encountered the fringes of their primordial territory, but the big breakthrough was photosynthesis, an ability to power metabolism with light energy, the consequence being that thriving ecosystems took shape at the surface of bodies of water, eventually reaching unpopulated continents in a profusion of bacterial and plant life vying for the sun’s rays, followed by biodiversification to every corner of the planet. Eukaryotes had also evolved the means to perform a reciprocal of photosynthesis called cellular respiration, breaking down molecules to harness released energy; this kind of organism was progenitor of the animal kingdom. Thus, the whole Earth became a habitation of competing but mutually reinforcing organisms with an incalculable complexity of function. Energy utilization and the allocation of nutrients have such primacy that mobility, the mouth and all of internal anatomy assumed their forms in response to these two needs.

3. Protection

Protection is necessary in every ecosystem, and this requisite has an all-encompassing effect on both surface anatomy and behavioral inclinations. To name a tiny selection of protective characteristics: coloring, claws, poison, speed, quickness, endurance, teeth, horns, eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, touch, vocalization, thought, aggression, fear, size, shelter and nest building, flight, herding, cooperation, spines, division of labor, jumping ability, fins, pheromone release, memory, and we could go on for more than a lifetime. It is interesting to note that many of these features have become central to technology: our contact with nature has both cerebral and subliminal effects on mechanistic ideas, which are then translated into a form conducive to materials at our disposal. In a progressive conceptualizing, it may be possible to understand intraorganism components, even down to the microscopic and biochemical level, as developing and operating according to similar principles of structural dynamism. Perhaps we can increase the efficacy of our models by thinking of the inside of an organism as a buffered ecosystem with elements that act independently, for their own good in addition to serving the needs of overall function. Cells and their behaviors may be theorizable as a kind of microcosmic evolutionary environment.

4. Recognition of Surroundings

An organism’s recognition of its surroundings starts with sense organs, perceiving changes as quickly as possible and adjusting in a minimum amount of time: senses are for reflexive actions that bypass awareness let alone analysis of uncertainty. Even single-celled protozoa that must be virtually incapable of cognition have very strong, sure responses to stimuli such as light and touch, probably in addition to chemical signatures that elude humans; with microscopes we observe sensory organs such as eye spots and hairlike protrusions on some of the smallest creatures we can find. However, without memory the senses are severely limited, and a majority of even motile organisms find themselves in harm’s way almost constantly as trillions and trillions perish each instant, even many of the microscopic species which have not required adjustment to a new environ in millions of years and so possess adaptations that make them nearly impervious to disease, predation, the immune responses of host organisms, or death from natural causes.

The phenomenon of memory is by no means theorized with completeness, but seems to consist in a uniting of perceptual components as integrated stream of consciousness, alongside the translating and compacting of perception into efficient forms of bioactive representation, stored for extended access, which enables matching up of past to present experience as the mind identifies substance properties via apparent attributes, abetting rudimentary anticipation of patterns in causality, like correlation of a predator’s scent or footprints with a specific location. The next evolutionary step was ability of an organism to formulate notions of why, as the primary cause among causes, it is or is not encountering success, a sophisticated experience of environment vs. self, and then an even further advancing cognition in some lineages which processes attributes from out of complex egoism, often together with cerebrally collective intentions, even for long periods of barely any stimulus at all.

Thus, a whole host of organisms not only meet basic needs, but also retain insight into both their own selves and relations with each other, so that raw sensation, memory content and thinking combine to produce a world where communal action is possible, an ecosystem as global society. There are barriers to this kind of actualization however, and we are seeing these appear pervasively in a world spearheaded by humanity: overbearing or hypocritical assumptions that those we associate with will conform to cultural precedents, entrenched expectations which when transgressed can generate conflict from out of irresistible impulsiveness, or flawed attempts to alter community structures closely linked with deeply rooted conscious need, often stimulating upheaval rather than dependable control, as well as complacency or ignorance about logistical requisites escalating with the growth of technological culture, including neglect of long-term planning and excessive dependence on authority. Definitive implications are not simplistic to surmise, for current civilization-centered ecology is a farrago of satisfactory, improvable, ineffective and corrupt practices, complicated by tendencies to compete, dominate, neglect, and demand from each other that carry over from the noncivilized past, susceptible to becoming toxically large-scaled in modern contexts.

5. Communication

Communication conceived in a general way involves the representing of information to a recipient that is foreign or nonself, and construed even more holistically is the essence of transmission amongst anything that exists: action and response. From this vantage point, everything related to life can be regarded as in a communicative exchange with something else. Inanimately, genes are informing assembly of proteins into enzymes that are basic biochemical agents responsible for structure in terrestrial organisms. Some molecules serve as informational markers on surface membranes of cells for identification of type and function. Flurries of microscopic congress happen within a huge variety of contexts, in conjunction with tissues, organs, circulation, digestion, respiration, and other bodily functions.

The next communicative level, more resemblant of what the human mind does, involves coordination of cognition to its environment for both self and communal preservation, a responsivity to indicators like chemical trails, vibrations or calls, at the lowest tiers of functionality often absent awareness of many benefits accrued to others or even themselves. Moderately cognitive animal species may respond in nuanced ways to attributes such as body size, coloration, markings and behavioral signals without having the conceptual open-endedness, an effectively infinite capacity that in humans is put on display by linguistic expression. Intentional consciousness can be rather narrow in scope even when recognitional indicators are detected in potent ways, but this is not as of yet generalizable with comprehensiveness across the spectrum of biology.

The next highest category is communication of complex intentional mentalities. Intelligent cognition acts for the higher goal of accuracy or success in accordance with deep awareness, via cogital structures which render interpretings of perception more integrated, incisive, and occasionally conducive to rich expressivity. These cognitively superior organisms tend to be socially adept, equipped to fashion predictable and predictive mental and physical behaviors with subtlety, implying information to the thoughts of other minds from out of complicate purpose. This stage is without a doubt characteristic of solidarity in the most cerebral species like great apes and prehistoric humans, with many more candidates scattered around the animal kingdom, as numerous bird and mammal species seem to fit the bill.

Our current, most advanced communicative development, of which humans are by far the supreme exemplaries, is ability to supplement cognition with materials, methods, tools and technologies for encoding the content of conceptual association, which exist in forms that can be far greater in fidelity and more resistant to decay than organic structures such as brains, even at extreme volumes of information. Invention of writing was the biggest leap forward, making human memory unlimited at the level of raw data, with educational strategies as well as preservation and distribution of written material rapidly improving during the progression towards modernity.

Upon arrival of computers it became possible to technologically simulate any association-making process realizable by a humanesque mind and link it with a memory that is empowering our species to pool every single datum of global knowledge, all the semiosis humans produce. Exponential increases in information processing conjuncted to programming for an infinite range of computational tasks can make it possible to perform feats such as modeling brains or the cosmogony of our universe, phenomena which are unimaginably complicated to unaided human minds. Translation of experience into data is converting the biosphere into an infosphere, with communicative content fast becoming the core causality of what we observe and reflect upon, a cosmos as naturalized mechanism, but how far we are capable of traveling down this path is shrouded in uncertainty.

6. Growth and Maturation

There is unfathomable variety in processes of growth and maturation, from simple mitosis to lifecycles that are stranger than fiction, but for practical understanding of human ontogenesis, knowledge of our own developmental stages proves more relevant by far than that of any other lifeform because of the immense quantity of cognitive skill sets, social objectives, and values necessary for the species to assimilate in a civilized environment. There are eight stages of human development (this would probably need to be retuned for the third world): infant/toddler, child, teenager, young adult, prime, middle age, retirement age, and elderly.

a. Infant/toddler

Many of the first aptitudes are tied to basic functions: eating, drinking, excretion, mobility and communication. Brains of the very young exemplify a penchant for learning the first language, walking, controlling the bladder and rectum, chewing and swallowing, so that huge progress is made in a short time, growth into what seems like an entirely different individual. Gains in judging appropriateness of behavior within social situations are more hard won because of the intricacy and variety involved, but by the start of grade school most youngsters avoid public tantrums and can play harmoniously with peers, though lapses in impulse control still happen frequently. The first few years of life are important for the emergence of creativity, and toys, activities, as well as exposure to new situations improve intellectual performance later in life.

b. Child

School teaches children how to navigate an institution, as respect for the rules and accord with authorities are paramount. Relationships become more complex, so that not only common interests but also personality, intentions and behavioral tendencies influence peer-to-peer bonding. Children absorb values and beliefs of the society they reside in and are impelled to think in terms of stereotypes, especially as it relates to broad issues transcending firsthand experience, such as political or religious rivalry and human nature, but an opposing inclination exists to satiate curiosities, learning to problem-solve and engage in reflection if schooling is adequate, and feeling an urge to express thoughts to members of social groups as well as resolve conflicts independently and reasonably with tutelary encouragement.

c. Teenager

The pivotal event of teenage life is puberty, conversion to mature sexuality as hormonal and consequently physiological characteristics of the human body undergo systemic change. This of course effects behavior in major ways: sexual attraction, altered self-image, desire for independence from caretakers, mood swings, and increasingly complex insights about social environments all occur. Demands made on cognition are more substantial at school, home, along with everywhere else, and it becomes perceivable where individuals might fit in and contribute as an adult. The teenager is still focused on increasing intellectual demands in the classroom and social milieu, but feels additional pressure to measure up to peers and secure a niche, with quality of friendships and level of respect received from adults affecting motivation, opinions about self-worth, and perspective on life in permanent ways. Properly educated teenagers will begin to consider perspectives and needs of those they interact with as well as form opinions about the benefits and flaws of key institutions, aspects of society they would like to support and what they want to resist or improve. This initiates their orientation towards the law and other traditional conformities.

d. Young adult

Supporting oneself financially is the most important issue at this stage, for most of those at the entry-level are getting paid a meager salary and occupational security is at the minimum. Young adults are concerned with interviews, resumes, dispositions of those in charge, fitting in with professional cultures, and everything else pertinent to crafting a vocational network for the first time. Emotional maturity reaches an adult level and individuals seek to present a confident, polished image, form solid, dependable friendships that last, and usually forge a long-term romantic relationship. They are still learning to manage money, which constitutes the foremost challenge as a need to save and protect one’s credit often clashes with efforts to impress coworkers, friends, girlfriends or boyfriends, reaching standards of achievement such as cars, houses, furniture, electronics, investments, and everything associated with them.

e. Prime

By this time most individuals, barring misfortune, have accumulated a skill set impressive enough to secure advanced jobs with salaries that grant the freedom to fulfill long standing dreams and map out one’s own future. Many are thinking of marriage and children coming along soon, if this is not already a facet of their lives, as well as preparing for the financial needs of retirement, dealing with insurance issues, bills, and everything else relevant to management of an estate. They have established a network of professional and personal contacts, and know or can find out how to respond to most issues of work or money. Reaching a peak level of dynamism coincides with primary responsibility in difficult situations: natural disasters, social upheaval, a population’s health emergencies and everything of maximum volatility and technicality put those in their prime in axial position. Demanding schedules make balancing work, home and family life almost insuperably taxing, a dilemma that has ramifications for future health and quality of life as stress and sleep deprivation become a companion of every moment.

f. Middle age

Those lucky enough to reach occupational and financial stability transition into the role of ethical leadership, reflecting upon and crafting values of a society. They rise to positions requiring analysis of broad experience and overarching social issues, possessing the most refined and sought after opinions offered by their cultures. These individuals must grapple with corruption that gets more prevalent the closer one approaches to upper echelons of an organization, and prospects of huge populations are in their hands. They are also faced with many personal obligations: tending to transformations in their love life, helping children make the transition to adulthood, caring for aging parents, as well as coping with their own increasingly vulnerable health.

g. Retirement age

As children move out of the house and careers draw to a close, individuals redirect attention to their personal lives, which change in significant ways. Busy, sometimes frantic obligations are replaced by more down time to socialize and reflect. Effort is devoted to renewing intimacy in spousal relationships or at least maintaining a dependable partnership. The retired fashion new lifestyles by becoming avid hobbyists, perhaps travelling, connecting with a small but cozy group of friends, visiting family, trying to stay active and involved. Declining health contributes to bonds within aging couples as they get their affairs in order, make a will, and take care of each other in times of illness.

h. Elderly

When old age sets in, life can grow to be tough, with changing biorhythms putting individuals out of sync with surroundings, decreased mobility, many more health hazards — simply tripping and falling can be deadly — and the deaths of friends, family and spouses. Control must be relinquished to younger generations, often direct descendants, who are instrumental in making sure they are cared for, and life typically ends in a medical setting where the elderly hopefully have support necessary to rest content with their final days and avoid being taken advantage of.

Unlike every other animal species, even the most high functioning, human development has revolutionized within almost infinitesimal amounts of time from the vantage point of civilization’s history let alone Earth’s, and with most of this change attributable to exceedingly pliant brain and behavioral plasticity, essentially learning and conditioning, drastic alteration will perhaps persist unabated. The 21st century may continue to rapidly diverge from precedents and ideals of the 20th.

7. Avoidance of Diminishing Health

The core of our approach to health is pain management; pain tells us when we are unhealthy, what doctors should do to treat us, and how we arrived at poor health. The purpose of pain in the first place, as a cornerstone of behavior and life itself, is mitigation and prevention of damage to the body by avoidance response to pain-inducing stimuli. It is likely that every organism with a nervous system and a brain has pain experience. Though this commonality exists, pain can likely be integrated into stream of consciousness in ways that differ greatly from the human experience, as species evince a wide array of neuromaterial tissues. Organisms that have substantial brains experience emotions in conjunction with pain, such as fear, relief, anger, sadness, and may also respond emotionally to the perceived pain of other organisms, related feelings of alarm, shock or empathy. Cognition can override compulsions set in motion by pain sensations in many cases, which is obviously true for humans, as we are constantly dismissing or submerging pain in order to satisfy intentions and carry long-term goals to completion. It is common for many species to enjoy inflicting pain under some circumstances with varying degrees of malice, probably an aspect of the predator/prey relationship that reached its most psychically elaborate manifestation as human cruelty, surfacing in all kinds of places such as verbal altercation, military combat, revenge, punishment and justice.

The institution of medicine is a means for responding intellectually to the experience of pain, as doctors with their specialized training administer treatments and educate the public. They have studied the types of pain pertaining to their fields in great detail and can usually determine which examinations or lab work are necessary simply from patient descriptions and presentation. The main categories of medical pain management and response are disease, injury, psychological and aging.

a. Disease

Diseases can be divided into two types, those with localized symptoms and those with systemic symptoms. Diseases confined to a specific area of the body are easier to diagnose, and general practitioners can make referral to a specialist without much difficulty in most instances. Systemic symptoms arise at some point from the majority of diseases and usually require lab work to identify the cause, for immune system response does not vary widely from case to case: some combination of fever, nausea, congestion, aching or tiredness is the usual accompaniment of most serious illnesses.

b. Injury

Injury is the easiest condition to diagnose because patients are usually aware of the event that caused it, though pain can sometimes be deceptive, radiating and accentuating in distant parts of the body. Imaging technology such as x-ray and MRI can normally pinpoint the source and provide clear implications for treatment: surgery, physical therapy, immobilization or swelling reduction.

c. Psychological

Psychological ailments are hard to diagnose due to the complexity of interactions between conscious, unconscious and nonconscious factors; the psyche can produce exclusively physical symptoms, and physical problems can impute only psychological indicators, with a vast spectrum of intermediacy. Repression — a submergence of disturbing memories in the unconscious — necessitates long periods of conversation-based treatment and creative analysis, sometimes lasting years, if the original context is to be brought to light and dealt with. The delicacy and idiosyncratic nature of the brain itself is also a complication; treating this organ directly is so perilous that tweaking its chemistry slightly with medication has been the most selected contemporary option, and even this poses risks, resulting in many systemic side effects and addictive dependencies. Despite this, it is undeniable that some form of health care is called for, and much effort is being made to enhance and innovate medical approaches to stress, sleep deprivation, traumatic memory, and further physiological risk factors for the decline of mental health.

d. Aging

The aging process is central to health care strategy as risk factors of heredity, lifestyle and functional degeneration multiply gigantically. With the advent of modern medicine, lifespans are so much longer that caring for persistent needs of the elderly is a huge financial effort, but this growing population benefits our advancement via the documentation of many more cases and an opportunity to try new treatments on a large scale. The technologizing of health care, with many recent breakthroughs in surgical and diagnostic method, can probably count aging citizens as indispensable.

Though medical care is one of our most successful, respected institutions, it is far from infallible, for long waits to be seen by a doctor, rushed appointments with swamped medical staff, exorbitant cost to patients, and of course the lack of transparency as well as fairness that pervades any massive and essential institution can be a typical concern. Luckily, those who practice medicine are some of the smartest, most educated members of a whole society and can advocate effectively for improvements when motivated to do so.

Chapters from the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, and more!

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