Cecilia Heyes



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Cognitive Gadgets: The Cult...

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The Evolution of Cognition

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3.50 avg rating — 4 ratings — published 2000 — 2 editions
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“As I stated in Chapter 4, and justified in Chapters 5–8, I believe the genetic assimilation hypothesis is at odds with the evidence from cognitive science. Time and again the evidence indicates wealth, not poverty, of the stimulus: covariation between the development of distinctively human cognitive mechanisms and opportunities for learning (Chapter 2). This covariation does not rule out, in principle, the possibility that genetic evolution has speeded up the relevant learning processes. However, I have not been able to find positive evidence that this kind of genetic assimilation has occurred—for ex­ample, evidence that learning is faster in natural than unnatural conditions, or that identical twins are more alike than fraternal twins. Indeed, in cases where positive evidence of genetic influence has been sought, the signs have pointed in the opposite direction. For example, people are not slower to associate body movements with unnatural stimuli, events that our ancestors would not have encountered, and identical twins are no more alike in their imitative ability than fra­ternal twins (McEwen et al., 2007; see Chapter 6). So, the current evidence suggests that our cognitive gadgets have not been genetically assimilated. But if this is true, why is it true?”
Cecilia Heyes, Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking

“There are a number of potential answers. It could be that cogni­tive gadgets have not been genetically assimilated because they are locally but not globally optimal, or that genetic assimilation has been obstructed by fitness valleys, or by lack of appropriate genetic variance (West­Eberhard, 2003; 2005). But my guess is that the most impor­tant factor is the speed of environmental change. Distinctively human cognitive mechanisms need to be nimble, capable of changing faster than genetic evolution allows, because their job is to track specific, la­bile features of the environment. For example, social learning strate­gies track “who knows” in a particular social group, something that changes with shifting patterns in the division of labor and, there­ fore, of expertise. Imitation tracks communicative gestures, ritual movements, and manual skills that change as groups and, through the cultural evolution of grist, new group markers, bonding rituals, and technologies. And mindreading, like language, must not only track ex­ternally driven change in the phenomena it seeks to describe—for example, economically and politically driven fluctuations in the de­gree to which behavior really is controlled by social roles and situa­ tions rather than beliefs and desires—but also self­generated change. Because it has regulative as well as predictive functions (McGeer, 2007), changes in mindreading can alter their explanatory target—the way the mind actually works”
Cecilia Heyes, Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking

“In short, distinctively human cognitive mechanisms are tracking targets that move too fast for genetic evolution. In a stable phase, “as­ similative alleles”—genes that reduce the experience­dependence of a cognitive gadget’s development—may increase in frequency. But when the environment shifts, there will be selection against assimi­lative alleles because their bearers will be slower to adjust to the new conditions (Chater et al., 2009). Once again, let’s take imitation as an example. As long as gestural markers of group membership, bonding rituals, and technologies remain constant, alleles that privilege and accelerate learning of particular matching vertical associations could be targets of positive selection. For example, people who more readily associate matching trunk movements (for example, you lean forward, I lean forward) than complementary trunk movements (you lean forward, I lean back), might have higher reproductive fitness than people who learn matching and complementary trunk movements at the same rate. But when conventions or technologies change, those assimilative alleles would hamper the development of imitation mechanisms with a now more effective repertoire of matching vertical associations. The people who had once been such effective social op­erators would now be losing social capital by leaning in when they should be leaning back. This kind of problem could be avoided if mu­tation produced a universal imitation mechanism, like the cognitive instinct postulated by Meltzof and Moore (1997), which could copy the topography of any body movement. However, this would be stan­dard genetic evolution, not genetic assimilation, and, given that no one has worked out how such a mechanism could operate (Chapter 6), it is plausible that—like wheels (Dennett, 1984)—it lies outside the range of available genetic variation.”
Cecilia Heyes, Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking



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