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The Evolution of MindReview - The Evolution of Mind
by Denise D. Cummins and Colin Allen (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 1998
Review by Anthony Dickinson, Ph.D
Sep 30th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 39)

Offering an eclectic interdisciplinary review of thoughts on the evolution of mind, this volume provides ten provocative and well referenced essays from a range of perspectives. Most of the contributors provide discussions of species-comparative data and are sympathetic to some form of Darwinian evolutionary framework. However, although not always explicitly stated, only four of them allude to the importance of ontogenetic development (of individuals) as well as to the phylogenetic evolution of species adapting to the constraints imposed by their respective environments. Many writers on this topic give up when reaching the seemingly great continuity impasse -- thereafter holding the advent of language or linguistically­mediated behaviour to account for the differences found between human mental life and that of other animals. However, this is to account for little with regards the evolution of comparative animal cognition. Even if such linguistic tools as object and event referents may be ripe for their scaffolding subsequent categorizations leading to the production of our particular brand of human thought, it remains open to empirical analysis whether, and to what extent, other species might be capable of experiencing reflective levels of ideational abstraction. Bloom (in Ch.8 of this volume) addresses this issue directly when he argues that language and the non­linguistic aspects of mental life have distinct evolutionary histories. His is a very welcome contribution to a field often dominated by authors blind to drawing the important distinction "...that language is an excellent tool for information transfer.. [but also for making].. the much stronger claim that language explains people's ability to understand or generate this information in the first place".

Somewhat refreshingly, this volume includes a number of such contributions which, although not mutually exclusive of the above position, provoke discussion of the issue of mind's evolution from an unexpected focus. For example, Gigerenzer (Ch.1) starts the book with a short lesson in Bayesian mathematics. However, the message here is not that a better understanding of math leads inevitably to better minds and logical ability per se. Ecological (situated) intelligence derives from the need to deal with uncertainty -­ and one should therefore expect an evolving system to best cope with tasks represented in a way comparable to those successfully encountered in the past. To cite Gigerenzer's own example, the use of natural frequencies (i.e., numerical counts of actual objects or events) should be 'easier' to process/evaluate than percentages, odds or the single­event probability of occurrence. Evidence from novice Vs expert practitioner problem­solving experiments are given and lend support to this argument. These findings might be of as much relevance to the planning of education programs in my view (for developing the individual mind), as might they be for our understanding the evolution of mind in general.

Cummins (Ch.2) argues for the evolution of mind to have its genesis in animals ability to reason about dominance hierarchies in social contexts. Citing the current literature concerning relative brain sizes and a variety of social dynamic contrasts, Cummins eloquently addresses the social foundations of cognition, but little else is new here. Indeed, given the use of the term 'pecking order' to describe knowing one's own place in the hierarchy, it was a pity that no mention of differential bird brain morphology was made (for more concerning bird brains, see below). Most of the examples given in this chapter are drawn from observations of primate social lives. The provocative sting in the tail, however, was not that clever methods of overcoming simultaneous chaining problems of the type A>B>C>D lead to smartness in species requiring hierarchical management skills. Cummins reminds us that the smart mind more likely evolved to allow one to overcome the constraints inherent in maintaining an existing dominance hierarchy (i.e., to be in a position to predict the dynamics, and then to successfully cheat, undetected).

One of the recurrent themes throughout this book is first found in Hauser & Carey (Ch.3) and concerns the problem of interpreting the findings of cross­species comparative cognitive work. They do well to reiterate that although clear behavioural differences might frequently be obtainable given the right task environment, it is not always clear whether such differences arise from difficulties with performance or ability. As for their own chosen distinction criteria for distinguishing between human and non­human animal minds, they propose a dichotomy of theories of mind: whereas any number of species might be said to possess a theory of mind as indexed by their exhibition of goal­directed action, humans also possess intention, and the belief that such intentional goal­directed actions be determinable in the (2nd or 3rd order) mental behavior of others. However, apart from some rather anecdotal reportage from the recent literature, Hauser & Carey rightly note that there is as yet no empirical data which addresses this issue directly. This point follows their earlier discussion of the validity of comparative data for the purposes of discerning the presence of representations in non­human animals. There, Hauser alluded to the fact that although the assumptions underlying our notion of representational equivalency will often lead one to make positive reports of its occurrence, such equivalencies by themselves are not necessarily the firmest existence proofs as may be achievable with the right task architecture (see, for example, the discussion of sortal object numeracy). Wynn (Ch. 4) provides us with further evidence for the ability of a variety of species to enumerate collections of objects. She argues for an "accumulator" (abacus­like) model of sorts, but remains redescriptive of counting, rather than putting forward any explanatory functional mechanisms to account.

However, what this chapter does address is of great importance for the evolutionary concerns of the volume. Wynn proposes that numerical abilities might be the result of the fine­tuning of adaptive processes for determining optimal foraging patterns, habitat, food­return trade­offs and for tracking sets of objects (including conspecifics) over time and space. Constraints nonetheless apply to the widespread adaptive utility of the capacity for more complex number processing. As evidenced by pre­linguistic failure, our ability to cope with division, squaring, integration, multiple summation and integral calculus is virtually nil prior to the development of our post­linguistic, symbolic processing. An astute observation, but again, one wonders what explanatory value such an observation might afford ?

As with so many evolutionary arguments made for the development of language and the mind, critical explanations are often avoided or mislaid altogether. For example. Hauser & Carey (Ch.3) relay to us the rather tongue in cheek comment attributed to David Premack that "... even if chickens had syntax, they¹d have nothing interesting to say..", but this is to miss the more salient fact (in my view) that domestic chickens have been very selectively bred over time in rather impoverished husbandry conditions for the production of high meat/low fat muscle and high proteinatious egg yield ­- a situation leaving little in its environment to provoke high levels of adaptive cerebral or intellectual challenge in an otherwise wild species.

Arguably more direct, we read from Allen & Saidel (Ch.7) that the more important issue concerning language is not so much with what language is or might be, but with what it can do for language communicators. Putting forward three exemplar categories of referents, each subsequently more arbitrarily referential than the previous (object presence, proxy and conceptual referents), the authors argue that reference to forms of behavior and events may be primitive to our making reference to objects. Of more direct relevance for our better understanding of the evolution of mind (and what cognition might "be for"), evidence from object motion studies in a variety of animals are cited in support of the view that event­related, rather than object­related stimuli evoke stronger responses in non­linguistic tasks.

This last discussion addresses much of concern also to Ristau (Ch.5) who quite rightly points out some of the recurrent difficulties of comparative psychology in settling the species­difference issues. We are reminded that ecological validity and the need for species­specific experimental situations continue to confound interpretations of otherwise interesting work. And coming to distinguish between whether an animal really "knows" something to be true, as opposed to being seen to behave "as if s/he should know", is again not merely an existence­proof issue. The onus is on the experimenter to develop an explanation according to some more adaptive, biologically­based, functionally­reinforced behaviour. With regards social referencing theories [but not their evolution], Ristau wisely informs us that social facilitation helps [not] solve the problem of knowing other minds by putting everyone in the same mind!

In concert with the majority of the contributors to this valuable and well edited volume, the final chapter of Shapiro (Ch.10) argues that psychology can and should benefit from evolutionary theory, and especially when being used as a methodological heuristic and essential explanatory tool. However, he also sets the cat once more among the pigeons when he wisely reminds us that, although adaptationism is an empirical thesis, "...some facts about our psychology may not be illuminated by a selectionist perspective".

Whatever one's views re evolutionary theories of mind, this volume provides many good questions (if not answers) for future comparative psychologist, naturalist and philosopher alike.

Dr. A. R. Dickinson, Dept. of Anatomy & Neurobiology, Washington University School of Medicine


1. Ecological Intelligence: An Adaptation for Frequencies, Gerd Gigerenzer
2. The Evolutionary Roots of Intelligent Reasoning, Denise Dellarosa Cummins
3. Building a Cognitive Creature from a Set of Primitives, Marc Hauser and Susan Carey
4. Cognitive Ethnology: The Minds of Children and Animals, Carolyn Ristau
5. An Evolved Capacity for Number, Karen Wynn
6. Playing with Play: What Can We Learn about Cognition, Negotiation, and Evolution, Marc Bekoff
7. The Evolution of Reference, Colin Allen and Eric Saidel
8. Some Issues in the Evolution of Language and Thought, Paul Bloom
9. Morgan's Cannon, Elliott Sober
10. Do's and Don'ts for Darwinizing Psychology, Lawrence Shapiro


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