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The Shape of ThoughtReview - The Shape of Thought
How Mental Adaptations Evolve
by H. Clark Barrett
Oxford University Press, 2015
Review by Diana Soeiro
Jul 26th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 30)

When it comes to Shape of Thought it is relevant to identify two goals, each concerning to two different realms, one scientific and one on readership. Scientifically, the book aims to inform about the state of the art in the field of evolutionary psychology, while frequently trying to persuade the reader to take the author's side on a specific idea or research orientation. As for its readership, it aims to appeal to the scholarly reader, while at the same time making the book readable to a general audience, adopting therefore an informal tone.

         If this sounds confusing, it is because it is confusing, which in other words means that the scientific and readership scope of the book is too wide.

The author, a biological anthropologist specializing in evolutionary psychology and Professor at University of California (UCLA), is undoubtedly informed and it is able to contextualize where does the field of evolutionary psychology stands today, using an informal tone. As this is not ambitious enough, simultaneously, and almost on every step whenever he introduces a new concept or theory, he shares his personal critical perspective aiming to openly persuade the reader to take his side.

There is nothing wrong with that, the question is that either the reader is a scholar that is able to maneuver all the information, engaging in an internal dialogue with the author that either confirms or denies his perspective, or the book becomes a struggle to read and the print becomes a monologue. The struggle is to be able to handle all the information that is poured out in a very dynamic way, and then stop and try to assess if you agree or disagree with the stand the author is taking, when in reality (if you are not a scholar) you do not have the ability to take a stand on anything. So you end up having two options, either you agree with everything, ignoring the author's plea to let yourself be persuaded, and just go with the flow trying to focus on the information part; or, you put down the book.

Having said this, is there a reason for the scope of this book to be as ambitious as it is? What message does it want to come across?

         The author's guiding question is: How has evolution shaped what's inside the mind? As Clark Barrett explains in his introduction, around twenty years ago, the controversy of bringing evolutionary theory to the study of the mind, began. The book aims at present the state of the art of what happened throughout those years, up until today, suggesting what path should the research in evolutionary psychology should take in an effort to clarify the many pitfalls, conceptual imprecisions and unnecessary controversies that took place along the way. He defends that the main goal of the field should be to clarify how the design of developmental systems evolved. It is relevant to mention that the author uses as synonyms "mind" and "brain", frequently interchanging the terms, which some may find inaccurate.

         The controversy the author refers to is, perhaps, the main reason why he is so ambitious in his scope. He aims at contextualizing a whole research field and suggest a new direction that, he believes, can both, take the best of what has been done up until now solving most questions posed by critics.

         Because the field at stake is evolutionary psychology, Darwin is constantly present (even though he's seldom mentioned directly) and concepts like nature/ nurture, adaptation, survival of the fittest, fight or flight and natural selection are always at play. Knowing Darwin's work well can help you read this book and make you be able to take a more legitimate stand on the author's rhetoric.

         According to Clark Barrett, in this book, there is an effort to integrate several approaches so that the field of evolutionary psychology can make the most progress. Knowledge from adjacent fields like evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), epigenetics, culture-gene coevolution theory, and cognitive science, should therefore be incorporated. Ultimately, when it comes to adaptation (one of the biggest divides in the field), the author favors a joint approach of a "modular" view of the brain and brain plasticity. An interesting feature of this book is its approach on culture. The author, due to his background in anthropology, favors a cross-cultural understanding of different cultures based on the understanding of mind design. According to Clark Barrett, mind and culture should not the studied separately, being co-dependent phenomena, mainly because in humans, culture is cumulative and can therefore create designs. The main point is that when it comes to the mind, everything finds its explanation on evolutionary origins.  

         This book may be of interest to those who do research in biology, psychology, anthropology and who take particular interest in the evolution of cognition. Nevertheless, within those fields, particularly, those who favor an approach focused on the brain as the guiding element will be the most satisfied. Also, if you are considering taking evolutionary psychology as your field of study, this book may help you understand if you relate with the field, how has the field evolved in the last two decades and what are its major challenges today. But be aware, both the rhetoric and packed information pages will force you to a slow reading in order for you to be able to get the information you need. This is more a book to be studied than read.


© 2016 Diana Soeiro


Diana Soeiro. Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Philosophy at NOVA Institute of Philosophy /IFILNOVA at Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Portugal). Updated information:


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