Genetics and Evolution

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Evolution and the Human MindReview - Evolution and the Human Mind
Modularity, Language, and Meta-Cognition
by Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain (editors)
Cambridge University Press, 2000
Review by James Sage
Oct 15th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 42)

"How did our minds evolve? Can evolutionary considerations illuminate the question of the basic architecture of the human mind?" These are the two driving questions behind this new volume edited by Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain. This excellent collection of twelve original essays is the culmination of a two-year series of workshops and a concluding conference sponsored by Sheffield University's Hang Seng Centre for Cognitive Studies.

This project is a testament to the value of the interdisciplinary study of the human mind. By bringing together philosophers, cognitive neuroscientists, psychologists, cultural anthropologists, archaeologists, and evolutionary biologists, the result is a unique treatment of contemporary debates regarding (a) the modularity and innateness of our cognitive faculties, (b) the distinctively human capacity for natural language, and (c) the evolutionary role of meta-cognition (cognition about cognition - thoughts about the thoughts of others). These are among the key debates in the literature.

There are no weak essays in this collection. Each is quite readable, mildly controversial, and thoroughly provocative. This volume opens with an invaluable introduction that, in addition to summarizing each chapter, provides a brilliant "get up to speed" summary of the key developments in the fields of evolutionary psychology, anthropology, cognitive science, and philosophy. This introduction allows the non-expert to get a sense of the underlying context of the debates, and makes the rest of the volume readable and engaging.

Among the topics addressed, in one way or another, include: the nature and evolutionary origin of the human mind; the mind's modularity, structure and function; evolutionary approaches to psychopathology; the adaptive origins of language; the archaeology of the mind; the evolution of knowledge; and the evolutionary basis of consciousness and self-awareness. While my review cannot fully capture the significance of this volume, it is highly recommended for anyone remotely interested in the evolution of mind.

Evolutionary psychology

Several chapters address the notion of evolutionary psychology - or, the evolutionary study of the human mind. This general approach should be distinguished from the specific research program made popular by Cosmides and Tooby (see, for example, The Adapted Mind, edited by Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992). I shall use "Evolutionary Psychology" (capitalized) to refer to the specific program endorsed by Cosmides and Tooby, and "evolutionary psychology" (lower-case) to refer to the general approach that merely endorses the evolutionary study of the human mind. One of the major tenets of evolutionary psychology is that the mind is composed of discrete mental faculties or modules, each of which is the adaptive response to a particular challenge presented to ancestral humans. The human mind, in other words, is constituted by a group of specialized modules. But just how "modular" is the mind? Is the mind "massively" modular?

The chapter by Richard Samuels addresses this issue of massively modular minds. He discusses and clarifies the "Massive Modularity Hypothesis" (MMH) and concludes that the standard arguments against MMH are in fact quite weak. As a result, Samuels effectively rebuts many of the poor arguments against evolutionary psychology (and there are many poor arguments in the literature). The strength of the contribution by Samuels is that it works as a corrective measure concerning the debate over the modularity of the mind by clarifying what it is that proponents of evolutionary psychology actually claim about the origin and structure of the mind.

The archaeology of the mind

Among the challenges of studying the evolutionary history of mind is the complete lack of fossilized ancient brains for study - the brains of our ancestors are simply not preserved. While we may study cranial "endocasts" (replicas of brains produced by the internal surface of the skull) this can only tell us about the gross anatomy of early brains. There is little direct evidence of the neural structure and cortical organization of early human brains. The chapter by Thomas Wynn introduces some of the techniques for "cognitive archaeology" (these techniques include a wide range of historical evidence such as stone tools, cave paintings, and other symbolic expressions). Wynn focuses on issues of symmetry in order to defend a form of domain-general account of human cognitive abilities. The presence of symmetry in the archaeological record suggests that spatial abilities found in modern humans appeared some 300,000 years ago, and did not require language. From this, Wynn argues that early hominid cognitive structure included some central domain-general organization, which employs a more peripheral visual-spatial capacity (which is itself highly specialized). While the overall conclusion of this chapter is in some sense ambitious, the attempt to defend a view of the mind as domain-general is not entirely incompatible with leading proponents of evolutionary psychology, especially those who reject a strong version of the Massive Modularity Hypothesis. In other words, even if we grant Wynn the claim that there are at least some central domain-general cognitive processes, this by no means refutes the notion that the human mind is largely constituted by domain-specific modules. It is, however, a valuable addition to the overall discussion regarding the evolutionary trajectory of mind.

Theory of mind

Speaking of minds, evolutionary psychologists and other scholars studying the mind from an evolutionary point of view propose specific mental modules, including a "Theory of Mind Module" (ToMM). Roughly, the idea behind this module is that early hominids developed specialized "mind reading" abilities (say, by employing various facial and behavioral cues, eye direction, tone of voice, etc.) and as a result, we're able to generate a concept of other people's minds, thus allowing us to better predict their behavior (and, in some cases perhaps, manipulate their behavior to benefit ourselves). Thus, by emplying a sophisticated concept of other minds, this allows us to better cope with growing group size, cooperation with others, and the increased demand on cheat detection.

The chapter by Robin Dunbar explores the adaptive purpose of a ToMM abilities. Drawing on his previous work linking cognitive development and group size, Dunbar argues that the demands placed on cognitive sophistication due to increased group size is what explains the development of various human cognitive functioning, including the employment of a ToMM. Related to this, the chapter by Adam Morton focuses on strategic thinking in competitive and cooperative settings. Morton explores the thorny issue of rationality (specifically, strategic thinking) in evolutionary contexts. He argues that the connection between evolutionary pressures in early hominids and stable strategic thinking yields accurate predications (already found amongst apes and thought to apply to early hominids) regarding group size and coalition-building within groups.


The chapter by Dominic Murphy and Stephen Stich, "Darwin in the Madhouse," is an excellent essay touting the strength of evolutionary psychology when applied to psychopathology. Murphy and Stich present a proposal for the classification of mental disorders based on the basic tenets of evolutionary psychology. Specifically, they propose a computational systems approach in order to provide a diagnosis of mental disorders which allows psychopathologists to abandon the vague clinical phenomenology characteristic of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This alternative evolutionary framework permits classification of psychopathologies based on the underlying malfunction of cognitive systems. For example, some mental illnesses may be due to a malfunctioning module, or produced by a properly functioning module that receives tainted input from other modules further "upstream". (Note: the clinical phenomenology found in DSM deals solely with manifestations of the cognitive system, offering no insight as to the underlying causes of illness. Hence, use of the DSM fails to penetrate the deeper malfunction associated with mental illness.) Another way in which an evolutionary framework identifies mental illness is in terms of a mismatch between mind and world - our Pleistocene minds are just not equipped to handle many features of post-industrial society. For example, the fear of heights might well be a perfectly adaptive response in early human development, but it is debilitating for those required to work in high-rise office buildings. As such, Murphy and Stich claim that such "disorders" due to a mismatch between mind and environment really aren't mental disorders at all, and this is because the mind is functioning normally, given the environmental input. Murphy and Stich are also careful to point out that some of our current classifications (as per typical psychological DSM diagnoses, such as antisocial behavior) might not be mental disorders at all. While anti-socials may be problems for us, their minds are nevertheless functioning exactly as nature intended (playing the odds, as it were, between manipulating others and maintaining "sincere" relationships). So, the approach suggested by Murphy and Stich provides a clear, principled way of distinguishing when someone has a mental disorders and when someone is simply annoying to the rest of us.

Taken as a whole, this collection of essays is an outstanding contribution to the evolutionary understanding of mind. It is also a model of successful interdisciplinary study in what seems to be an ever-specializing academic environment.

© 2001 James Sage

James Sage is a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001.


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