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The Innate MindReview - The Innate Mind
Volume 2: Culture and Cognition
by Peter Carruthers, Stephen Laurence and Stephen Stitch (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2006
Review by Eric Chelstrom
Jun 25th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 26)

In this collection of essays proponents of Evolutionary Psychology attempt to explain the place of culture in relation to what the editors' term nativism. Nativism, they claim, is not really a viewpoint, but a family of views contrasted with empiricism. (Carruthers et al 2005: 4-5) "Nativists are inclined to see the mind as the product of a relatively large number of innately specified, relatively complex, domain-specific structures and processes." (ibid: 5) In short, they believe that our minds are not purely passive and reactive to content stimulus, but consist of elaborate predispositions towards specific kinds of contentful interactions -- language acquisition a la Chomsky being a classic example.

The individual essays are by and large interesting. The collection weighs a bit on the technical side, though not to the point of being obtrusive. In particular, the introduction is quite valuable. It is the only place in the volume where the background assumptions of the contributors are discussed. Any reader unfamiliar with the basics of Evolutionary Psychology should certainly read the introduction before continuing with the volume at large. The editors (along with Tom Simpson) identify and characterize four strains of thought integral to their starting point: (a) cognitivism in psychology, (b) nativist theories of mind, inspired by Chomsky, (c) a modularity thesis of mind, built upon the Chomskean hypothesis of there being a language module 'built in' to the mind, and (d) the emergence of sociobiology. They take these to represent the best results of science to date, thus the best point of departure for theoretical speculation. What all of this adds up to is a view that considers the human mind to consist of a collection of specialized capabilities, modules, which are the product of our evolutionary history, either in part or in whole.

Following David Buller (2005), I believe it is wise to keep clear the distinction between the set of beliefs that the contributors to this collection have in common (hereafter Evolutionary Psychology) and the field of study by the same name (evolutionary psychology). Evolutionary Psychology, in short, is found amongst those who "attempted to integrate the burgeoning nativist research tradition with the evolutionary approach to culture urged by sociobiologists." (Carruthers et al 2007: 9) This view claims that our behavior is a manifestation of the interaction of our genes with our environment and that "it is a mistake to assume, as sociobiologists typically do, that the behavior of modern humans is adaptive, since it is produced by minds that were designed by natural selection to produce adaptive behavior in a very different environment." (ibid) This leads one to the view that natural selection selected for certain mental modules -- "special-purpose computational devices" or "Darwinian algorithms" (ibid) -- based on pressures inherent in problems faced by our ancestors during the Pleistocene era, roughly 10,000 years ago. This is not to claim that there are no universal elements of what it is for something to be a human culture, only to claim that we should expect to identify variation in the module sets between populations whose genetic histories originate in regions with sufficiently distinct environmental concerns. If this is true, we should be able to identify a rough set of things to include in a universal human cognitive architecture and catalog the variations relative to distinct populations.

It is not clear if this view distinguishes between the brain and the mind. While different areas of the brain do figure as necessary conditions for certain kinds of mental events, it is not clear that they represent sufficient conditions for mental events, as distinct from brain states. This is of special concern here given that the authors accept the metaphor of the computer as a reasonable avenue for understanding models of the mind. Proponents of the modularity thesis often are not clear in identifying whether they are discussing hardware or software. In a computer there are also a great deal of distinct kinds of software -- web browser, graphical user interface, operating system, word processor, etc. All use the same hardware in their functioning, more or less. Yet, sometimes one bit of software requires other software to function. This affects the present work in that advocates of the computer analogy for the mind -- an analogy with definite limits, which we should be careful not to purchase uncritically -- aren't always clear what level in the overall model their theses are intended to describe. H. Clark Barrett's essay (Chapter 13) may offer some fruitful bases for sufficiently clarifying the nature of 'module' sufficiently to accommodate this concern. I take it that for that to be the case it must enable us to differentiate the dependent module systems from the foundational ones. Dependency and foundation relations between modules should, in principle be able to be identified, such that a clear taxonomic breakdown of modules could be represented in schematic form. In the least, Barrett describes 'software' level modules that are responsive to one's immediate environment. The final section of essays in this volume begins to intimate how modules would relate to the specifically normative domains of human life, such as morality and religion (Chapters 15-18). However, normativity itself gets lost in the narrow focus on contingent matters of psychology and this view may do more to undermine morality than not -- in reducing it to a contingency of evolution.

One problem faced by the contributors is to explain those cultural phenomena that appear to have no adaptive function, e.g. religion, taboo etc. (p. 12); they may even represent maladaptive beliefs. One tactic for addressing this, the epidemiological approach, argues that such cultural practices do in fact have adaptive value. The epidemiological metaphor is an acknowledgement that sometimes the contents and effects of culturally transmitted beliefs and practices do not always benefit the 'host' in toto. Some cultural phenomena appear to 'infect' humanity by exploiting the natural elements of our cognitive systems, whose primary function is quite different than the exploited operation. In other words, this approach acknowledges that there are certain stable elements of the human mind, what the contributors call innate properties or modules, and cultures will sometimes exploit these modules' innate functions for independent purposes.

An alternate thesis to the epidemiological approach claims that human cultures transmit information cumulatively, i.e. that cultures 'store' a great deal of knowledge and 'edit' its contents over time. (pp. 13-14) Robert Boyd and Peter Richardson (Chapter 2) offer the example of an academic left in the Arctic to survive. That academic would need to build a kayak out of local materials to survive; the claim, then, is "he would, of course, be a spectacular failure." (p. 13, see also 32) The thought experiment is intended to support the conclusion that since there is no module for the necessities of Arctic survival, like kayak building, information for some specialized skill sets, like the Inuit's kayak building skills, are culturally transmitted and part of a process of cultural evolution. It is not clear how this metaphorical use of 'evolution' in relation to culture is intended to be distinguished from evolution in its proper biological sense; surely cultures don't 'evolve' in the same sense that organisms do. It appears that there are at least two non-modular means by that cultures adapt: either virally (epidemiologically) or what I call narratively (cultural transmission) -- of course, the 'narrative' metaphor should not be taken literally, as not every cultural transmission should be expected to be in a narrative form. Epidemiological phenomena exploit one's innate cognitive architecture, whether presented an adaptive value or not for those affected. Narrative phenomena supplement and work in tandem with one's innate cognitive architecture, trending toward maximal benefit, as their 'users' edit their content over time in relation to their intended purpose.

In respect to its chosen task, this volume presents an interesting series of discussions. It is not clear why one should necessarily consider the basic assumptions of this approach as either economical or fruitful as an explanation of how our minds work. This is most apparent when Evolutionary Psychology is asked to explain culture. The contributors are to be applauded for their persistence and diligence in the face of their adopted challenge. The explanations seem forced at times and rarely, if ever, do the authors respond to challenges to their general view in significant fashion. Buller (2005), whose stunning critique of Evolutionary Psychology stands as one of the most effective challenges to it, is only mentioned twice and dismissed as having misunderstood the view in question -- in a footnote no less. (Carruthers et al 2007: pp. 199, 212n10) The lack of serious response to critiques of the overarching view is disappointing. Perhaps the editors found that to be best left to another collection, as they do acknowledge the controversial nature of the background assumptions of Evolutionary Psychology. Given that the conclusions drawn are dependent on the theoretical assumptions that inform their theories, redress to their critics is a task most needed. Unfortunately, said defense is not obviously present in the first volume of this series any more than the present. (Carruthers et al 2005)

All in all this is a laudable collection. The volume represents an intriguing series of attempts to address the issue of culture's relation to the evolution of mind from the standpoint of Evolutionary Psychology and serves as a nice follow up to the previous collection in the series. The multidisciplinary focus of the collection is admirable and may serve to extend such cross-disciplinary exchange. More philosophers should be encouraged to follow the lead of the editors. I look forward to seeing how authors in the tradition of Evolutionary Psychology relate their views to theories of intentionality, especially collective intentionality; in John Searle's writings for instance. Moreover, I look forward to the lively debate on the horizon with the burgeoning cross-disciplinary focus of the new generation of authors in the tradition of phenomenology (Shaun Gallagher, Evan Thompson and Dan Zahavi to name a few), whose underlying views are generally understood to be more friendly to the human sciences and strike this author as both more economical and critically satisfactory.



Buller, David (2005) Adapting Minds. MIT Press

Carruthers, Peter; Stephen Laurence and Stephen Stitch, eds. (2005) The Innate Mind: Structure and Contents. Oxford University Press.


©  2007 Eric Chelstrom


Eric Chelstrom is a Ph.D. candidate at the University at Buffalo and holds an M.A. in philosophy from Northern Illinois. He is currently researching issues pertaining to intersubjectivity in the phenomenological tradition and their relevance for contemporary philosophy of mind.


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