Broughton, R. S. (2010) Using evolutionary perspectives on anomalous cognition. Paper presented to: 34th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Sheffield, England, 10-12 September 2010.
Over two decades ago I proposed that in order to understand how psi operated we needed to view it in an evolutionary context (Broughton, 1988). This notion was consonant with, and indeed grew out of Stanford’s need-serving model of psi (Stanford, 1974, 1990). At the time, even with Stanford’s insights, the evolutionary purpose for the existence of psi seemed uncomfortably vague. Since then there have been only two attempts to pursue this further, with McClennon (2002) offering his 'ritual healing theory' as an indirect evolutionary advantage, and Taylor (2003) extending Stanford’s model into a more explicitly evolutionary framework. While these efforts have their merits, I argue that we are still short of a convincing picture of an evolutionary advantage conferred by psi. In further exploring the evolutionary perspective, I think it would be helpful to limit consideration to extrasensory perception (ESP) or anomalous cognition. Also, the two stage model (Tyrrell, 1946) of ESP suggests that evolutionary modelling of the phenomena must focus primarily with the second stage, called the product, in which anomalous information is elaborated into conscious awareness and/or behaviour. In order to understand how ESP or anomalous intuition works, it is necessary to understand its purpose within an evolutionary context. Evolution has proven exceptionally effective in enabling species to make use of a wide range of physical phenomena for information gathering and communication. If some yet undiscovered physical process permits retrocausation would we not expect evolution to have capitalized on that process. As a product of evolution, ESP would have to conform to the requirements of evolutionary theory. Suddendorf and Corballis (2007) have elaborated the notion of mental time travel (MTT), the memory-based ability to project oneself into the past as well as the future, and have argued that the “ultimate evolutionary advantage” may lie in the capacity to envisage future events. Their model of MTT provides an ideal context in which to understand an evolutionary path for anomalous intuition. Working through the emotional system, anomalous intuition may operate by influencing the selection of memory images we use to execute our MTT. A growing body of data supports the involvement of the emotional system in anomalous intuition but there is only suggestive evidence for the expected hereditary component. The observed limited effectiveness of anomalous intuition may emerge from the balance achieved through an evolutionarily stable strategy, or result from inherent limitations in capitalizing on the underlying physical process