Inside Cover Blurb1
- How did human minds become so different from those of other animals? What accounts for our capacity to understand the way the physical world works, to think ourselves into the minds of others, to gossip, read, tell stories about the past, and imagine the future? These questions are not new: they have been debated by philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, evolutionists, and neurobiologists over the course of centuries. One explanation widely accepted today is that humans have special cognitive instincts. Unlike other living animal species2, we are born with complicated mechanisms for
- reasoning about causation,
- reading the minds of others,
- copying behaviors, and
- using language.
- Cecilia Heyes agrees that adult humans have impressive pieces of cognitive equipment. In her framing, however, these cognitive gadgets are not instincts programmed in the genes but are constructed in the course of childhood through social interaction. Cognitive gadgets are products of cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution. At birth, the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees.
Yet when these subtle differences are exposed to culture-soaked human environments, they have enormous effects. They enable us to upload distinctively human ways of thinking from the social world around us.
- We are friendlier3,
- our attention is drawn to different things, and
- we have a capacity to learn and remember that outstrips the abilities of newborn chimpanzees.
- As Cognitive Gadgets makes clear, from birth our malleable human minds can learn through culture not only what to think but how to think it.
Back Cover Affidavits
- "Cecilia Heyes presents a new hypothesis4 to explain the one feature that distinguishes Homo sapiens from all other species: the mind. Through lucid, compelling writing, this masterly exegesis proposes that the key features of the human mind, termed 'Cognitive Gadgets,' are the products of cultural rather than genetic evolution. It will stimulate its readers to think deeply, as Heyes has done, about what it means to be human5."
→ Lord John R. Krebs, University of Oxford
- "Cognitive Gadgets is a book written with a strong conviction, boldly taking on deeply entrenched views on topics such as the genetic basis of language and imitation. It will be a very positive contribution to long-held debates about the nature of being human6=5."
→ Steven Mithen, author of The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body
- "Cognitive Gadgets is a terrific book. Heyes makes a very surprising claim, arguing that human cognitive capacities — language, technical and causal intelligence, and the capacity to understand others — are not built by natural selection, but are instead cultural adaptations, installed by social learning. It is a richly informed, beautifully clear, and lucidly argued case."
→ Kim Sterelny, Australian National University
- "How much of what is distinctively human depends on our biological (genetic) evolution and how much is culturally influenced or learned? This book will make you think about this old question anew and wonder if you have drawn the lines between these two kinds of inheritance in the right places."
→ Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
- Cecilia Heyes is Senior Research Fellow in Theoretical Life Sciences and Professor of Psychology at All Souls College, University of Oxford.
Introduction – 1
- A Question and Many Answers – 7
- Nature, Nurture, Culture – 24
- Starter Kit – 52
- Cultural Learning – 77
- Selective Social Learning – 91
- Imitation – 116
- Mindreading – 144
- Language – 169
- Cultural Evolutionary Psychology – 197
References – 225
Notes – 263
Acknowledgments – 271
Index – 275
In-Page Footnotes ("Heyes (Cecilia M.) - Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking")
- Numbering and sub-numbering, here and elsewhere, are mine.
- While this is the "standard view" rather than Heyes's own, is it fully correct?
- While causal reasoning and language may be exclusively human capacities - despite the ingenuity of squirrels and ape sign-language - don't social animals have a theory of mind and don't lots of animals immitate others?
- So, if we have innate capacities, so do they, and nativism for human beings is not so special.
- Indeed, everyone agrees that non-human animals have "instincts", so why don't we?
- I'm doubtful whether this is true - or necessary.
- The example given in the book is of a plane-load of chimpanzees, who spend the journey biting one another, compared with human beings, who somehow get along despite minor provocations.
- Well, imagine a plane-load of Montagues and Capulets, or rival football supporters.
- I suspect that the difference between human beings and other animals is that humans are born prematurely, a necessity given large brains and narrow pelvises.
- Consequently, at birth and for a couple of years thereafter infants can do little harm other to themselves, and are subjected to intensive training in the art of gentleness, if that is the culture into which they are born.
Footnotes 5, 6:
- How new is it? At first sight it looks like a reversal to the "blank slate" view.
- However, Chapter 3 ("Starter Kit") denies this somewhat, but suggests our genetic cognitive inheritance is much less specialised and specific than is often claimed.
- This is discussed towards the end of the last Chapter.
- Harvard University Press (27 April 2018). New Hardback.
- Cecelia Heyes is due to speak on this book at Oliver Black's Salon on Sunday 7th October 2018.
- I have promised to have read the book by then.
- Hence the extensive extracts, to orient myself and check I've understood the argument.
"Heyes (Cecilia M.) - Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking"
Source: Heyes (Cecilia M.) - Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking
Introduction1 (Full Text)
- 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?
- 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 machines2; 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
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 evolution3. 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).
- causal understanding,
- episodic memory,
- normative thinking, and
- many more.
- 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
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.
- 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.
- The first three chapters lay some foundations for cultural evolutionary psychology.
- 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.
- 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:
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 ("mills4").
- Genetically inherited information;
- Culturally inherited information; and
- Information derived directly from the environment in the course of development.
- 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 with5
- high capacity mechanisms of learning and memory,
- species-specific attentional mechanisms, and
- a tendency to find social cues especially rewarding.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 theory6 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The core chapters, Chapters 5-8, have particular selling points.
- 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?
- Chapter 6, on imitation, looks in detail at how a new cognitive mechanism can be constructed by domain-general cognitive processes through social interaction.
- Chapter 7 presents an innovative view of mindreading, offering an alternative to the long established nativist and theory-theory perspectives.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Introductions7 & Conclusions
- A Question and Many Answers
- Introduction: In this chapter, I first outline how the cognitive gadgets theory differs from other, recent answers to the question "What makes us peculiar?" I locate my answer within the "logical geography" ("Ryle (Gilbert) - Philosophical Arguments", 1945) of contemporary research on human evolution. Then I explain how and why the cognitive gadgets theory builds on some of the other answers, and suggest that the origins of literacy provide a proof of principle for cognitive gadgets.
- Conclusion: The cognitive gadgets theory, or cultural evolutionary psychology, addresses the question: What makes human lives so peculiar? It is a force theory8 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 taught9 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 literacy10 provides a proof of principle.
- Nature, Nurture, Culture
- Introduction: 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.
- Conclusion: In summary: the teleosemantic view suggests that a biological structure X carries information about Y only if the state of X correlates with Y, and X was selected because its states correlate with Y. This conception of information11 provides a theoretical framework in which to isolate and compare the contributions of
to human cognitive development. Populational models of cultural evolution suggest that culture is a major contributor to the development of cognitive grist — distinctively human behavior, artifacts, and conceptual structures. I argue that a specific kind of populational model — a selectionist approach — can also be used to understand the development of cognitive mills — distinctively human cognitive mechanisms. The selectionist approach suggests that the conditions necessary for Darwinian evolution — variation, selection (or "sorting"), and inheritance — are present in the cultural domain. Starting the process of applying a selectionist analysis to cognitive mechanisms, I have formulated hypotheses about variants, routes of inheritance, and mechanisms of inheritance, and discussed the kinds of empirical evidence that can help us isolate the roles played by cultural inheritance in the development of cognitive processes.
- nature (genetically inherited information),
- nurture (information derived from direct interaction between the developing system and its environment), and
- culture (culturally inherited information)
- Starter Kit
- Introduction: (The previous) chapter started with an acknowledgement that the development of every aspect of human behavior and cognition depends on a rich stew of factors. I have argued that, in spite of this multifactorial complexity, the contributions of nature, nurture, and culture to the development of any given human cognitive trait can and should be identified with the help of the teleosemantic conception of information, combined with empirical studies investigating poverty and wealth of the stimulus12. In (this) chapter, I use some of these tools to identify the "starter kit" of human cognition: a set of genetically inherited psychological characteristics that make a major contribution to the development of distinctively human cognition.
- Conclusion: In this chapter, I have surveyed some of the evidence that our genetic starter kit consists not of Big Special cognitive processes but of refined and expanded versions of the kits that are genetically inherited by chimpanzees and other animals.
This picture, and the one I hope to draw in the book as a whole, is of mighty oaks growing from little acorns. The oaks are the Big Special cognitive processes found in mature adult humans. Each acorn is a genetically inherited starter kit consisting of
- Compared with other extant primates, we are less aggressive to conspecifics and more strongly motivated to interact with them. These emotional and motivational features give developing humans more and better access to models and teachers, and make juveniles more malleable in interaction with others.
- We also have attentional biases, in favor of faces and voices, as well as biological motion, equipping us to begin extracting information from other agents as soon as we arrive in the world. These biases are simple and crude at birth, but, through the action of associative learning, they swiftly become so specific that they target our attention — and thereby our learning — on knowledgeable adults of our own cultural group, and on the objects and events to which those adults are attending.
- Finally, compared with other animals, we genetically inherit expanded capacities for associative learning and executive function. These cognitive processes allow us to process the information about the world flooding in from other agents, and to build new cognitive processes that, among other things, further enhance our ability to learn from others.
This picture suggests that High Church evolutionary psychology, and therefore cultural evolutionary theory, has underestimated the potential of the acorns discussed in this chapter, not primarily because it has overestimated the size of the oaks, but because it has failed to appreciate what domain-general cognitive processes can achieve when they are souped-up, tightly constrained by inborn attentional biases and prior learning, and immersed in a rich sociocultural environment.
- temperamental factors,
- attentional biases, and
- the potential to develop especially powerful domain-general processes of learning, memory, and cognitive control.
- Cultural Learning
- Introduction: (The first three chapters) have laid some foundations for cultural evolutionary psychology. They have located this approach relative to other answers to the question, "Why are humans such peculiar animals?" (Chapter 1); introduced a teleosemantic conception of the nature-nurture debate; explained, in broad terms, how selectionist cultural evolutionary theory can be applied to cognitive mechanisms (Chapter 2); and discussed some distinctively human psychological characteristics that we have good reason to believe are genetically inherited (Chapter 3). We will return to the big picture in the final chapter. In the meantime, we will focus on a series of "case studies." Chapters 5-8 each concern a distinctively human cognitive faculty that, I argue, has been shaped by cultural, rather than genetic, evolution. All of these faculties — selective social learning, imitation, mindreading, and language — are types of social learning and, more specifically, of cultural learning. Chapter 4 introduces the case studies by distinguishing cultural learning from other types of learning and explaining why the difference matters.
- Conclusion: I recommend, and adopt in this book, a framework in which "social learning" is understood to be learning that is assisted in some way by contact with other agents (Heyes, 1994), and "cultural learning" is social learning specialized for cultural evolution. This approach is similar to, but less presumptive than, the framework currently used by cultural evolutionists. It makes clear that three important questions have barely been addressed by prior research on cultural learning, let alone resolved.
The case studies in Chapters 5-8 address these three questions.
- The first is the question of cognition: How do the mechanisms of cultural learning differ from those of social learning at the cognitive level?
- The second is the question of contribution: In what ways do the features that distinguish cultural learning from social learning contribute to cultural inheritance?
- And the third is the question of specialization: How have genetic evolution and cultural evolution contributed to the specialization of cultural learning?
- Selective Social Learning
- "Social learning" names a ragbag of behavioral effects, most of them found not only in humans, but in a wide range of animal species. At its most capacious, the bag contains all cases in which learning by one agent (the "observer") is influenced by contact with another agent (the "model" or "demonstrator") or its products. The influence can be on what, when, where, or how learning occurs. The learned information can be about the social or asocial world. The agents can be natural or synthetic — insects, birds, fish, rodents, cetaceans, primates, people, or robots — and the contact can involve anything from sniffing a slime trail to attending a lecture on calculus.
- Social learning is said to be "selective" or "biased," or the learner is said to be using a "social learning strategy," when the influence of other agents varies with the circumstances of the encounter ("when" selectivity), or with some feature of the available models ("who" selectivity).
- Conclusion: In the first section, I surveyed evidence that information is encoded for long-term storage by the same cognitive processes when the learning is either social or asocial — that is, when learning is and is not influenced by contact with another agent. This view is no longer controversial. Instead, those who regard social learning as "special" are now primarily concerned with selective social learning. They suggest that, in humans and a wide range of other animals, there are domain-specific processes — called social learning "strategies" or "biases" — that work in a top-down fashion to regulate the use of socially learned information. Challenging this view, I argued in the second section that selective social learning in nonhuman animals, in young children, and often in adult humans, is due to low-level, domain-general mechanisms: to the same, attentional processes that make all learning selective. However, in the third section I suggested that the strategic approach is occasionally right. In humans, social learning is sometimes made selective by metacognitive rules, that is, by culturally inherited, reportable generalizations about who is likely to have the best information, and when one should rely on that information rather than on one's own epistemic resources. The final section looked more closely at how the use of explicitly metacognitive social learning strategies, rules of the kind used by a cook, may contribute to cultural evolution.
- Introduction: Selective social learning has been a focus of cultural evolutionary theory since the 1980s, but it barely appears on psychologists' radar. In contrast, the topic of (this) chapter — imitation — has been hailed by psychologists and biologists for more than a century as a distinctively human cognitive mechanism that plays a crucial role in supporting cultural accumulation.
- Conclusion: Imitation is the longest serving category of cultural learning. Scientists have been claiming for more than a century that imitation is a form of social learning specialized for cultural inheritance. In this chapter, I have embraced that view but challenged the assumption that imitation is a cognitive instinct. The ASL model13=6, for which there is empirical support both from training studies and experiments showing that imitation has signature limits, not only suggests that imitation is a cognitive gadget, but provides a picture of how a new, specialized cognitive mechanism can be constructed by domain-general cognitive processes through social interaction. Specified types of sociocultural interaction (for example, synchronous action in dance, drills, and sports; being imitated by others; use of mirrors) yield correlated sensorimotor experience of seeing and doing the same action. This experience builds a repertoire of matching vertical associations. The matching vertical associations act like teeth on the wheel of perceptual sequence learning, gearing it to motor sequence learning. The resulting compound mechanism is a cognitive gadget capable of imitation learning.
- Introduction: The ASL model suggests that experience with optical mirrors can contribute to the development of the imitation mechanism. It does not say that mirror experience is necessary for the development of imitation. Nevertheless, some people still find the suggestion highly implausible, even shocking. Surely an artifact that emerged so recently in human history could not play a significant role in the development of a cognitive mechanism? I think this reaction is a measure of how accustomed we are to thinking about cognitive mechanisms as instincts, with deep roots in prehistory and the human genome. (This) chapter continues to challenge this mental habit by suggesting that mindreading develops in much the same way as print reading, a cognitive capacity we know to be only five to six thousand years old.
- In summary: mindreading is like print reading in having regulative as well as interpretive aspects; in being cognitively demanding and slow to develop; and in being characterized by neural specialization, developmental disorders, and cultural variation. Furthermore, evidence from natural experiments, observational studies, and traditional experiments indicates that, like print reading, mindreading is learned through scaffolding and explicit instruction. It is culturally inherited; a cognitive gadget. Expert mind-readers communicate mental state concepts, and ways of representing those concepts, to novices. As the novices become expert, they pass on the knowledge and skill of mind-reading to the next cultural generation.
- The analogy between print reading and mindreading is not perfect. "Sound symbolism" shows that the relations between inscriptions and their corresponding speech sounds and referents often depend on features of the nervous system (Ozturk, Krehm, and Vouloumanos, 2013), but it is likely that these relations are more arbitrary than the relations between observable behavior and mental states. In this respect, numeracy may be a better analogue than literacy. However, mindreading is comparable to print reading not only in terms of its weak dependence on genetically inherited mechanisms and strong dependence on teaching, but also in the shape and size of the cultural legacy. Like print reading, mindreading mechanisms represent representational relations — between mental states, behavior, and events in the world — and allow the mind-reader to regulate and interpret a virtually limitless range of mental contents. Consequently, along with print reading, mindreading is a special cognitive ingredient of teaching — a practice with enormous potential to enhance the fidelity of cultural inheritance.
- Introduction: (This) chapter focuses on the other powerful ingredient of much human teaching: language. Language is often described as a Rubicon, a shining threshold in the evolution of human cognition. Ancient legend in many cultures suggests that, once the language boundary was crossed, the minds and lives of our ancestors were forever transformed. Now capable of abstract thought and subtle communication, we became radically different from all other animals — more like gods than beasts. In this chapter, I do not wish to challenge the importance of language. Abstract thought may be less decisive in human affairs than intellectuals would like to believe, and linguistic communication is far from the only significant channel of cultural inheritance, but there can be no doubt that language is a remarkable skill, one of the foremost faculties that make humans unique. What I want to explore is how language evolved, genetically or culturally, and whether its reputation as a god-like faculty has influenced scientific attempts to answer this question.
- This chapter has outlined a genetic and a cultural account of the evolution of language, and reviewed evidence relating to
The discussion of linguistic universals indicated that there are few, if any, non-definitional features that all languages have in common. However, this can be made compatible with the genetic account if linguistic universals are construed not as features that all (or many) languages have in common, but as components of Universal Grammar. The discussion of critical periods drew attention to evidence from migrant populations suggesting that second language proficiency depends on number of years of exposure to the second language, rather than on whether learning began before or after puberty, and to studies of native speakers indicating that, with the exception of phonology, first and second language learners may obtain similar levels of proficiency. These findings suggest that language learning is not a critical period phenomenon, but the critical period claim is not an original or essential part of the genetic account of the evolution of language.
- linguistic universals,
- a critical period for language development,
- the neural localization of language, and
- the roles of domain-general sequence learning and social shaping in language acquisition.
- When looking at the neural localization of language, we found that it enlists a more widely distributed set of brain areas than any other major psychological function, and that Broca's area is more often active during non-linguistic than linguistic tasks. These data certainly tell against the idea that there is a "language center," but it is not clear why it was ever supposed that genetically inherited linguistic information is more likely than culturally inherited information to be implemented in a narrowly localized area of the brain. The review of research on domain-general sequence learning highlighted several sources of evidence that are consistent with the cultural account of the evolution of language. Computer simulations suggest that sequence learning, without inbuilt language-specific constraints, can enable a system to process complex grammatical constructions in a humanlike way. Experiments examining individual differences in typically developing adults and children suggest that they use the same sequence learning processes to learn artificial and "real" linguistic grammars, and studies of people with "specific language impairment" indicate that their impairment is not, in fact, specific to language; they have difficulty with sequence learning across task domains. Likewise, research with nonhuman animals confirms that domain-general sequence learning capacity has increased in the hominin line, provides a plausible model of how this change has been implemented in the primate brain, and supports evidence from humans that mutations of F0XP2 interfere with language by interfering with sequence learning more generally, implying that F0XP2 is not a "language gene." Finally, research on social shaping shows that infants and children are frequently corrected by adults when they make grammatical errors, and that this negative input is put to use in language learning. These findings, like those on sequence learning, confirm novel predictions of the cultural theory and, in the case of social shaping, challenge the poverty of the stimulus argument, a foundation of the genetic account. However, those who are committed to a firm distinction between competence and performance can argue that all of these findings bear on the externalization of language, but not on whether there is a genetically inherited language of thought.
- When I started researching this chapter, I was ready to be convinced that language is a cognitive instinct rather than a cognitive gadget. I was prepared to accept that, while other distinctively human cognitive processes are products of cultural evolution, language really is in our genes. Indeed, it would make my job easier to have one, foundational instinct on which to build. But, for what it is worth, this outsider has not been convinced. Maybe there really is a genetically inherited Universal Grammar, but, from over the fence, it looks like that theory cannot now be tested against the cultural evolutionary alternative using the methods of cognitive science. I can only conclude that, while the genetic view is appealing for a variety of reasons, some of them extra-scientific, the cultural account — once a very poor relation — is now clearly specified and rich in empirical support.
- Cultural Evolutionary Psychology
- We have looked in detail at four distinctively human cognitive mechanisms:
In the first three case studies, I argued that the evidence from cognitive science — encompassing research from experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience, as well as comparative, developmental, and social psychology — indicates that selective social learning, imitation, and mindreading are cognitive gadgets rather than cognitive instincts. In the case of language, I am not qualified to judge the balance of evidence. However, it is clear, even to an outsider, that the genetic view no longer occupies the unassailable position it once enjoyed.
- selective social learning,
- mindreading, and
- With the case studies under our belt, it is now time to step back and reconsider broader issues relating to the cognitive gadgets theory, and to examine the implications of this framework for research on human cognition — the prospects for a cultural evolutionary psychology. The first three sections of this final chapter tackle evolutionary issues introduced in Chapter 2;
The subsequent three sections step back yet further to consider
- What are the selection processes and inheritance mechanisms involved in the cultural evolution of cognitive processes?
- Are they likely to have been genetically assimilated?
- how the cognitive gadgets theory can be related to human evolutionary history,
- what it implies about human nature, and
- how it can be used in psychology and other disciplines to investigate the origins and functions of distinctively human cognition.
- Conclusion: The framework introduced in this book, cultural evolutionary psychology, combines the strengths of evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory to answer the question: What makes us such peculiar animals? Like evolutionary psychology at its best, cultural evolutionary psychology takes this to be a question about the mind, drawing on cognitive science, rather than folk psychology, for information about how the mind works. Like cultural evolutionary theory, cultural evolutionary psychology embraces the evidence that human phenotypes are shaped not only by genetic inheritance and learning, but also by cultural evolution. However, unlike both of its conceptual ancestors, cultural evolutionary psychology finds evidence — in social cognitive neuroscience and a broad range of other fields — that the influence of cultural evolution is not confined to the grist of human thought. It has also shaped the mills. Distinctively human cognitive processes are products of cultural group selection. They are not cognitive instincts, but cognitive gadgets.
In-Page Footnotes ("Heyes (Cecilia M.) - Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking")
- As this contains useful Chapter summaries, I may cannibalise this to provide Chapter Abstracts if I ever break the book out into separate Papers for each Chapter.
- Having said that, the Chapter Conclusions will do as well, or instead, and I have extracted these also.
- The paragraph numbering and any sub-paragraph divisions are mine.
- These are Heyes’s “mills”. But what “we have created” are not these “mechanisms of thought” but the contents of these thoughts – the “grist”.
- The “mills” have to be re-created – on Heyes’s theory – anew in each individual.
- Also – a note for future consideration – is the “grist” such a thing as English Grammar, for instance, or is it the ability – in a particular individual – to speak English grammatically.
- And is the “mill” the ability to acquire English grammar?
Footnote 4: Footnote 5:
- The Oxford English Dictionary defines a gadget as "a comparatively small fitting, contrivance, or piece of mechanism." I have chosen the term primarily because it sounds like instinct (two spikey syllables) but means something very different. While instincts are in the genes, gadgets are "contrivances" — assembled through human action. I also embrace the implication that cognitive gadgets are "comparatively small fittings"; they work in close and continuous interaction with phylogenetically ancient cognitive mechanisms, and it is the latter — the mechanisms we share with other animals — that do the lion's share of controlling behavior. However, I am not suggesting that cognitive gadgets are products of intelligent design (that people intend to produce them), or that they are "small" in the sense of being unimportant. Distinctively human cognitive mechanisms are powerful and play crucial roles in enabling us to lead our peculiar lives.
Footnotes 6, 13:
- There seem to be minor variations in these lists.
- “ASL” = “Associative Sequence Learning”.
Footnote 8: Footnote 9:
- Apart from the first Chapter, the Introductions are tagged on to the Conclusions of the preceding Chapters.
- I’ve moved them, making minor textual changes in brackets.
- While reading is clearly taught, speaking one’s native language isn’t.
- The acquisition of literacy is important, but is it really cogent? Almost everyone learns to speak without a lot of explicit teaching, yet few learn to read without a lot of torture, and many never do. The same’s true of lots of special skills – mathematics, for instance.
- Some skills, riding a bicycle for instance, can just be picked up by almost anyone: the only teaching needed is just to demonstrate that the seemingly impossible can be done.
- Other skills can just be picked up by some exceptional people, and yet can scarcely be dinned into others – playing musical instruments, for instance.
- So, where does all this lead? All are recent – in evolutionary terms – cultural developments
- Heyes explicitly distances herself from the mathematical theory of information developed by Claude Shannon that is central to the telecoms industry.
- I don’t know whether this deviation is anything other than terminological.
- Whatever I (will) have to say on the subject is here.
- “Poverty of the stimulus” arguments for the innateness of various human capacities are important.
- However, they – despite their cogency – have something of the character of the “incredulous stare” (in response to rival explanations).
- I wonder whether Heyes considers whether IT developments such as associative learning and self-teaching (reinforcement learning): as exemplified in the exploits of DeepMind (Wikipedia: DeepMind), in AlphaZero, for example?
- Throughout history, people have used the latest technology to model the mind: famously, dualism seemed attractive because it didn’t look like the technology of the day – clockwork – could “hack it”.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)