Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking
Heyes (Cecilia M.)
Source: Heyes (Cecilia M.) - Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking
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Introduction1 (Full Text)

  1. What makes us such peculiar animals? Compared with other creatures, we humans lead very strange lives. No other animals have so completely transformed their environment, become so dependent on cooperation for survival, and constructed, along the way, the vast edifices of knowledge and skill in which all human lives are embedded; technology, agriculture, science, religion, law, politics, trade, history, art, literature, music, and sports. Why? What is it about the human mind that enables us to live such unusual lives, and why do our minds work that way?
  2. In this book I argue that the answer to these questions is "cognitive gadgets." We humans have created not just physical machines such as pulleys, traps, carts, and internal combustion engines — but also mental machines; mechanisms of thought, embodied in our nervous systems, that enable our minds to go further, faster, and in different directions than the minds of any other animals. These distinctively human cognitive mechanisms include causal understanding, episodic memory, imitation, mindreading, normative thinking, and many more. They are "gadgets," rather than "instincts" ("Pinker (Steven) - The Language Instinct - How the Mind Creates Language", 1994), because, like many physical devices, they are products of cultural rather than genetic evolution2. New cognitive mechanisms — different ways of thinking — have emerged, not by genetic mutation, but by innovations in cognitive development. These novelties have been passed on to subsequent generations, not via genes, but through social learning; people with a new cognitive mechanism passed it on to others through social interaction. And some of the new ways of thinking have spread through human populations, while others have died out, because the holders had more "students," not just more "babies" ("Sober (Elliott) - Models of Cultural Evolution", 1991).
  3. Psychologists often use gadgets as metaphors. They suggest that various aspects of the human mind operate in the same way as circuit boards, cisterns, search lights, search engines, thermostats, resistors, and the bristles of a Swiss Army knife. But, if I am right, the resemblance runs much deeper. Distinctively human ways of thinking are products of the same process — cultural evolution — as machines in the outside world; they are pieces of technology embodied in the brain. Genetic evolution has given humans more powerful general purpose mechanisms of learning and memory, tweaked our temperaments, and biased our attention so that it is focused on other people from birth. But — drawing on comparative and developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, anthropology, behavioral economics, and theoretical biology — I argue in this book that it is the information we get from others, handled by general purpose mechanisms, that builds distinctively human ways of thinking.
  4. The first three chapters lay some foundations for cultural evolutionary psychology.
    1. Chapter 1 says more about the cognitive gadgets theory — what it is, and what it is not — explaining how and why cultural evolutionary psychology builds on evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory.
    2. Chapter 2 draws on the philosophy of biology, arguing that, although we now know that some versions of the nature-nurture debate were deeply misguided, it is important to discover, for any particular feature of human cognition, the ways and extent to which the feature is shaped by:
      1. Genetically inherited information;
      2. Culturally inherited information; and
      3. Information derived directly from the environment in the course of development.
      Chapter 2 also includes an overview of contemporary cultural evolutionary theory, showing how it can be applied, not only to cognitive products ("grist"), but also to cognitive mechanisms ("mills").
    3. Chapter 3 focuses on features of distinctively human cognition that have been shaped primarily by genetically inherited information. It surveys behavioral and neurological evidence that, far from being "blank slates," or just like the minds of chimpanzees, the minds of newborn human babies are equipped with high capacity mechanisms of learning and memory, species-specific attentional mechanisms, and a tendency to find social cues especially rewarding.
  5. Chapter 4 examines the nature of cultural learning that enables cultural inheritance — the cultural analogue of DNA replication — and provides an introduction to the heart of the book, chapters 5-8. Each of these chapters examines a type of cultural learning (selective social learning, imitation, mindreading, and language) and argues, from the available evidence, that its distinctively human characteristics depend on culturally inherited information. I focus on the mechanisms of cultural learning — the cognitive gadgets that enable humans to learn from others with extraordinary efficiency, fidelity, and precision — for two reasons.
    1. First, these distinctively human cognitive mechanisms are especially important because they are gifts that go on giving: culturally inherited skills that enable the cultural inheritance of more skills.
    2. Second, evolutionary psychologists and cultural evolutionists disagree about the origins of many cognitive characteristics, but both parties are convinced that the mechanisms of cultural learning are cognitive instincts, not cognitive gadgets. This consensus suggests that the mechanisms of cultural learning are the hardest nuts to crack — the cognitive mechanisms that are least likely to be explicable as products of cultural evolution.
  6. Social learning is said to be "selective," or to involve "social learning strategies," when the impact on behavior of observing another agent varies with the circumstances in which the encounter occurs, or with the characteristics of the observed agent, or "model" — for example, when older models have more impact than younger models. In Chapter 5, I argue that most selective social learning — found in nonhuman animals, children, and adults — is due to domain-general learning and attentional processes, that is, to processes that have not been specialized for social interaction, let alone for cultural inheritance. However, a small proportion of social learning strategies, found only in adult humans, depend on explicit metacognition — on thinking about thinking. These, and only these, behavioral effects are genuinely "strategic," and genuinely examples of cultural learning. The evidence suggests that, like other explicitly metacognitive rules, these metacognitive social learning strategies are learned through social interaction — culturally, rather than genetically, inherited.
  7. Imitation occurs when an observer copies the topography of a model's action; observing the way that parts of a model's body move relative to one another causes the observer to produce movements in which the parts of his or her own body move in a similar way. In Chapter 6, I agree with the century-old view that imitation is "special" — much more highly developed in humans than in any other species, and dependent on mechanisms that are not involved in other kinds of learning. I also agree that these mechanisms contribute to the fidelity of cultural inheritance. My rebellious streak comes out only in relation to the question of where imitation comes from. Offering an original theory of the mechanisms mediating imitation, and a wide range of empirical evidence in support of that theory, I argue that the capacity to imitate is acquired through sociocultural experience.
  8. Mindreading involves the ascription of mental states, such as beliefs and desires, thoughts and feelings, to oneself and to others. In Chapter 7, I suggest that genuine mindreading contributes to cultural inheritance primarily by enhancing the effectiveness of teaching, but that many of the behavioral effects attributed to mindreading — the "implicit" or "automatic" effects reported in apes, infants, and adults under time pressure — are not genuine cases of mindreading; they are due to domain-general psychological processes. These processes can generate predictions about behavior that simulate the effects of mindreading, and when they do, the agent may be described as "submentalizing." Where does real mindreading come from? From the same kinds of conversation-based social interactions that support the development of print reading or literacy. It is culturally inherited.
  9. No one doubts that language — communication using words or signs in a structured and conventional way — is a hugely important form of cultural learning. When it comes to language, the crucial question is not whether it is a form of cultural learning, but where the language faculty originated: genetic or cultural evolution. In Chapter 8, I approach this debate as an outsider — neither a linguist nor a language scientist — and with an open mind. Indeed, it would have been convenient for the purposes of this book if I had found in the language debate a compelling case for an innate language faculty; a rock-solid cognitive instinct on which cultural evolution had constructed cognitive gadgets. But that is not what I found. Insofar as the two ideas can be tested against one another, I find the case for the cultural evolution of language at least as strong as the genetic alternative.
  10. The core chapters. Chapters 5-8, have particular selling points.
    1. Chapter 5 addresses very directly a question which cultural evolutionists have tended to avoid: Exactly what is it about selective social learning that promotes cultural evolution?
    2. Chapter 6, on imitation, looks in detail at how a new cognitive mechanism can be constructed by domain-general cognitive processes through social interaction.
    3. Chapter 7 presents an innovative view of mindreading, offering an alternative to the long established nativist and theory-theory perspectives.
    4. Chapter 8 gives an informed but dispassionate overview of the current status of the debate about the origins of language; I have read widely, but I don't have a dog in that fight.
  11. All of the case studies are unusual in bringing to the cultural-evolutionary table theory and evidence, not only from primatology and developmental psychology, but from experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience.
  12. The final chapter takes a step back to consider how the cognitive gadgets theory measures up against the chronology of human evolution, and what it implies about human nature. Cultural evolutionary psychology implies that human minds are more agile, but also more fragile, than was previously thought. We are not stuck in the Pleistocene past with Stone Age minds, and well-targeted educational interventions have the potential to transform cognitive development, but we have more to lose. Wars and epidemics can wipe out not just know-how, but the means to acquire that know-how. The cultural evolutionary perspective also has disciplinary implications. It does not suggest, as have many evolutionary psychologists, that all research on human minds and human lives must be informed by evolutionary theory. On the contrary, it suggests that research on the developmental and evolutionary origins of human cognition should be informed by the humanities and social sciences.

Chapter Conclusions
  1. A Question and Many Answers
    • The cognitive gadgets theory, or cultural evolutionary psychology, addresses the question: What makes human lives so peculiar? It is a force theory rather than a narrative theory of human evolution, akin to evolutionary psychology in focusing on the mind, and to cultural evolutionary theory in emphasizing the importance of social learning and culture in shaping human characteristics. However, cultural evolutionary psychology makes a radical departure from both evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory in proposing that distinctively human cognitive mechanisms—ways of thinking- have been built by cultural evolution. They are cognitive gadgets rather than cognitive instincts; pieces of mental technology that are not merely tuned but assembled in the course of childhood through social interaction. Some of the components and engines of construction are genetically inherited, but the designer of the human mind is natural selection acting on cultural, rather than genetic, variants. We are taught the thinking skills that make us peculiar. Those skills are not "in our genes." The recent emergence of social cognitive neuroscience makes cultural evolutionary psychology a timely development in research on human evolution, and research on the acquisition of literacy provides a proof of principle.
    • To take culture seriously, we need to rethink the distinction between nature and nurture. Laying some groundwork for cultural evolutionary psychology. Chapter 2 tackles the nature-nurture issue and takes a closer look at what is meant by cultural evolution.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: Footnote omitted.


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