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The Evolved ApprenticeReview - The Evolved Apprentice
How Evolution Made Humans Unique
by Kim Sterelny
MIT Press, 2012
Review by Christophe Al-Saleh
Oct 16th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 42)

This book is the sequel of a series of lectures Kim Sterelny gave in Paris in 2008, as a recipient of the Jean Nicod Prize in Cognitive Science.

One possible title was The Fate of the Third Chimpanzee.

Clearly we understand that what is at stake in this book is the uniqueness of our species, and the fact that this uniqueness is a result of an evolution. Five million years ago, we were not that different from our cousins the chimps, but we became very different while chimps did not change a lot, and the change was spectacular quantitatively (3 million years, a short period, according to the timeline criteria of molecular biology) and qualitatively (we acquired the biological basis which allowed us to become eventually behaviorally modern).

A merit of the eventual title, The Evolved Apprentice, is to underline the main thesis of the book: we are learning-minds in learning-environments. That is the reason why we are able to give our children enhanced minds and enhanced environments, like the ones we inherited from our ancestors.

The model of the Apprentice is exactly what we need to understand human cognition as a crucial feature of behavioral modernity (behavioral modernity being the explanatory target). To explain how we became able to transmit cognitive capital (all the knowing-how and knowing-that we possess) and to structure our ecological niche, that is "the evolution and partial stabilization of behaviorally modern human cultures" (197) is the core of Sterelny's argument.

This is not easy reading. My opinion is that only a reader knowledgeable in either anthropology (and its sub-domains and fields), or philosophy of science (especially philosophy of biology), or evolutionary science, or, more generally, cognitive science, will be able to fully engage with the thought-provoking insights and impressive arguments of this masterful piece of work.

I will now explain the structure of this book, focusing on its methodological as much as theoretical commitments. I will conclude by insisting on the way Sterelny takes sides in a debate which is especially raw in philosophy today: the origins of morality.

Sterelny is taking sides against what he thinks are two methodological dead-ends, that is two approaches unable to deal correctly with the explanatory target. The first idea is so common among evolutionary scientists that Sterelny talks about it as the Standard View. It is a combination of an architectural hypothesis about the mind, that is, modularity, and of a selective hypothesis about human beings, namely the Social Intelligence Hypothesis, that is, the idea that only human minds endowed with capacities (of a Machiavellian sort) that allow them to deal with potential disturbances of the social system (the paradigmatic disturbance being known in the literature as the "free-rider" problem) are positively selected by evolution.

According to Sterelny, the modular hypothesis is unable to cope with the variety of environments where modern hominins are living ; he writes, "our genes cannot predict the kind of world in which we will live" (18). So how could dedicated modules inherited by way of genotype-transmission be able to meet the various ecological requirements?

In the same vein, one can ask whether dedicated modules are able to explain the relation between an isolated agent and a cultural and social world. Sterelny writes, "the problem of social navigation and mind reading in ancient Australia differed from those of the Pacific Northwest" (20)

The second idea is not proper to a special theory of mind, but is rather an epistemological trap. This is the "Key Innovation" idea, that is, the idea that there was a break in human evolution, a sort of leap, where human beings became behaviorally modern because they came to be endowed with what may be a new technology, or a biological trait, or a new kind of behavior, something that may be part of the genotype as well as of the phenotype (even in its extended version). In general, key innovation ideas are full of insights but neglect co-evolved processes.

Whereas Sterelny argues against the Standard View in Chapters 1 & 2, his way of defeating the Key Innovation idea is more by showing, throughout the whole book, that one is in a better predicament if one is giving up this idea of an outbreaking leap, and is rather adopting the idea that co-evolved processes are able to trigger positive feedback loops, giving human behavioral modernity its shape.

In Chapter 1, Sterelny develops the explanatory target, and starts explaining away the standard view and the key innovation idea. Instead, he's proposing a model that "emphasizes positive feedback loops between many aspects of hominin life" (20). The model must predict "competent responses to novel problems" (6) rather than stereotypical behaviors (i.e. roughly speaking routines).

Social foraging is the first step that separates us from our cousins the chimps.

Chapter 2 develops the core argument, that is the Evolved Apprentice model of social learning. The strength of Sterelny's model is to focus on learning itself. The answer to the importance of learning for our species is not in prewired modules. Social learning (skill acquisition) takes place in an "environment seeded with informational resources " (35).

The learner is doing work while acquiring knowledge. This form of learning is hybrid, a combination of explicit learning and of practice and imitation, and it's placing children into a social world with its roles and symbols. Sterelny writes, "apprentice learning is a good general model of the acquisition and exercise of the crucial cognitive competences that mediate our adaptive responses to a complex and changing world " (35)

In Chapter 3, Sterelny tackles two paleo-anthropological puzzles : Neanderthal extinction, and the delay (150 k years) between the appearance of homo sapiens (200k ago) and the appearance of culture (behavioral modernity, 50k ago).

The second puzzle could lead to key innovation ideas (symbolic capacities, for example). Sterelny brushes them aside by underlining the distinction between the capacity to stabilize and preserve skills and techniques, and the capacity to be able to transmit cues about those skills and techniques that will allow learned inheritors to improve and enhance those skills and techniques.

Sterelny writes, "it is one thing to be able to construct a hafted spear by using a heated mix of ocher and acacia gum to glue the warhead to the shaft. It is another to be able to demonstrate that skill in ways that make the most crucial elements salient and transparent" (61).

As for Neanderthal extinction, Sterelny uses it as a mirror case of his model : when Neanderthal could not afford anymore (because of strong climatic pressures) to build their ecological niche, they  "were caught in a fitness trap" (68)

So, chapter 3 is probing the model built in previous chapters.

In sum, chapters 1 to 3 provide the conceptual and methodological basis for the rest of the book.

And, in fact, chapters 4 to 8 constitute a natural history of our cognitive machinery.

Each chapter is built on the same model. A stalking horse is chosen (in chapter 4, the Grandmother Hypothesis ; in chapter 5, the problem of the free rider ; in chapter 6, Sperber's Dilemma about information-sharing ; in chapter 7, moral Grammar's nativism ; in chapter 8, Bowles & Gintis conflictual model of the transition from Pleistocene to Holocene) , usually a model falling into one of the two dead-ends mentioned and refuted in the first chapters, and Sterelny develops an alternative Account, based on the model of the Apprentice. But, one must add, stalking horses are chosen also because they provide the philosopher with real and deep insights in crucial anthropological and evolutionary features. Sterelny is never unfair in his treatment of alternative models or accounts of the evolution of human cognitive capacities.

I will not give the details of chapters 4-8.

Instead, let us focus on the chapter 7, centered on the question of the acquisition of norms.

The point of the chapter is to insist on the idea that nothing is needed in addition to the Apprentice's model to understand why we are able to grasp norms and modify our behaviors accordingly. Sterelny proceeds, following two steps.

First, he shows that the analogy between the acquisition of language and the acquisition of morals (on which proponents of Moral Grammar nativism, as Hauser, Dwyer and Mikhail base their account of morality) breaks.

Second, he argues that we come to acquire morals in exactly the same way we acquire other capacities. He writes, "I agree that moral development is robust because we are biologically prepared for moral education, but I think that preparation consists in the organization of our developmental environment through specific perceptual sensitivity, and by our pro-social and commitment emotions" (165).

Let us recap.

Sterelny argues that most of the phylogenetical puzzles concerning our evolved capacities, epistemic as much as normative can be solved by appealing to a model (the Apprentice's Model) where social learning and the construction of the ecological niche are the crucial features.

In sum, we first build our niche, which is the effect and the cause (in a positive feedback loop) of social learning, and that gives rise to what we call our "capacities". The trouble with the modular view is that it handles what is made possible (capacities) by social learning as if it was the condition of possibility, ignoring that " social learning is a dominating and pervasive feature or our life " (126) and that "humans are niche constructors per excellence" (145)

The book is thorough, and many aspects were ignored in this review. I warmly recommend the reading and re-reading of this convincing non-nativistic account of our evolved capacities.


© 2012 Christophe Al-Saleh


Christophe Al-Saleh is lecturer in philosophy (Université de Picardie, Amiens, France)


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