"This is an important book and likely the most thoughtful of the year in the social sciences... Highly recommended, it is likely to prove one of the most thought-provoking books of the year."--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
How did human minds become so different from those of other animals? What accounts for our capacity to understand the way the physical world works, to think ourselves into the minds of others, to gossip, read, tell stories about the past, and imagine the future? These questions are not new: they have been debated by philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, evolutionists, and neurobiologists over the course of centuries. One explanation widely accepted today is that humans have special cognitive instincts. Unlike other living animal species, we are born with complicated mechanisms for reasoning about causation, reading the minds of others, copying behaviors, and using language.
Cecilia Heyes agrees that adult humans have impressive pieces of cognitive equipment. In her framing, however, these cognitive gadgets are not instincts programmed in the genes but are constructed in the course of childhood through social interaction. Cognitive gadgets are products of cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution. At birth, the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees. We are friendlier, our attention is drawn to different things, and we have a capacity to learn and remember that outstrips the abilities of newborn chimpanzees. Yet when these subtle differences are exposed to culture-soaked human environments, they have enormous effects. They enable us to upload distinctively human ways of thinking from the social world around us.
As Cognitive Gadgets makes clear, from birth our malleable human minds can learn through culture not only what to think but how to think it.
All in all a fantastic book. And obviously correct in its conclusions (meaning that I agree). The book sets out to show how recent human evolution (last 300 000 thousand years, at least) to a large degree has taken place in the cultural realm rather than in the biological realm. According to Heyes, we don't only learn facts, but also what she terms "cognitive gadgets" - thinking tools such as reading, reasoning, how to imitate and how to "mind read". These abilities have evolved over time, meaning that the difference between people a few thousand years ago and people today are in that these "cognitive gadgets" have evolved, not our biology. To my mind, this is blindingly obvious, but it's nice to see the alternative arguments countered in such a well-informed and scholarly way. But the claim is actually even more expansive than that, that also some human universals are learned, not genetically inherited, such as language and "mind reading". If there is any shortcoming in the book (and why I gave four stars instead of five) it is that the refutation of counterarguments is so prominently featured and Heyes own theory less well explained. How do you test it, how do you study the evolution of "cognitive gadgets" and in what way is it not just regular history of ideas? I would have liked to see a more expansive presentation of such issues. But all in all, this is probably one of the most important books on evolution and cultural evolution to be published in recent years, to be read by anyone interested in these issues. I, for one, will happily bury "evolutionary psychology" and all its excesses. Welcome instead "cultural evolutionary psychology".
Like the closely related Natural History of Human Morality, this book presents a very important new idea in a relatively inaccessible form. The thesis perfectly answers a question that's been floating around in my mind for the past 6 months or so of learning about cultural evolution, essentially completing the puzzle (at least in outline) of human knowledge. Heyes offers a metaphor for the problem that is great for the first 5 times but does get a bit thin after the 20th: cultural evolution studies of folktales and weaving technology and words study "grist", but what about the "mills"? The conceptual tools we use to write stories, design machines, and generally reason about and understand the world. The intuition here has always been obvious for me: it all has to come from evolution, either genetic or cultural, but we can't know exactly where the line is between one and the other.
The alternative is that reason is somehow a metaphysically transcendent causal force that exists independently of natural forces, which is a tough sell for me. But according to Heyes, we can know identify pretty much exactly where the line between genetic and cultural evolution is, and understand how they interface with each other. Now, she acknowledges that evidence in some of her points is still tentative, so I suppose there's a chance that the details of the answer will change in the next 20 years. But either way that new answer will still feature a much more explicit and mechanistic understanding of the link between the cultural evolution of thinking and the genetic evolution of brains. Anyway, Heyes suggests that there's now good reason to believe there is (and this is not particularly surprising to people familiar with the debate) no such thing as genetically inherited Universal Grammar, and (more interestingly) that theory of mind is learned, not genetic. Even the most basic building blocks of cultural transmission, like imitation and selective social learning, aren't genetically innate. They're culturally learned.
All of that raises a ton of interesting questions, and has tons of interesting implications. First of all, it tells us that the cognitive modules on which all of human culture are constructed are not qualitatively different from other animals. We're just better at learning and remembering patterns that other animals could also recognize. I'm not familiar with cognitive science in general, and this is probably not a new idea in that field, but I was surprised by the enormous emphasis this puts on the basic process of associational learning, in which repeated correlations of movement and sensory stimuli are biologically encoded by the growth of neural links. It's a simple, evolutionarily commonplace induction machine that is capable of learning every culturally encoded mechanism for learning human culture, including imitation, theory of mind, and language.
Second, it tells us that practically everything we think of as human nature is cultural. That means that cultural evolution almost certainly goes back way farther than any traceable lineage of cultural "grist" could ever detect. It also means the entire nature-nurture/evolutionary psychology-social constructivism debate needs to be reassessed in light of the realization that "human nature" is by no means constrained by the limits of genetic change. Basic mechanisms like imitation and language per se are clearly highly stable, but the specifics can and certainly have been tweaked a lot since the mesolithic. There's no reason to think of modern human brains as possessing "stone age" instincts in anything other than the specific areas where this has been shown to be true.
One of the interesting questions it raises is less a question than an invitation to actually research the phylogenies of "mills." This is the really interesting part but Heyes as a cognitive scientist, and insofar as the book is really only about establishing the premise, spends precisely 0 time on it. There are likely not even any studies on the topic yet, so I can't blame her, but I was hoping for some more detailed speculation.
So all of that is fascinating, but the book itself is dry, extremely repetitive, and limited to describing the methods and results of cog sci experiments. It often feels painfully pulled between its nature as an academic book, in which every chapter is meant to be read as an independent paper, and a popular book. Heyes is not a particularly adept science writer as these things go, and doesn't do much to make her work more accessible or interesting that it is inherently. That's totally fine by me. But then she also feels the need to insert colloquial analogies and explanations for her jargon terms every single time she uses them. She says "domain-general" about 200 times, and in an audio book (especially with the excessively enunciative British reader) that gets a bit old.
Oxford professor of psychology Cecilia Heyes makes the case for cultural evolutionary psychology as a research program and framework, which she forcefully posits on many key points as continuous or divergent with evolutionary psychology and with cultural evolutionism of the californian school (Boyd, Richerson, Henrich) or of the Paris school (Sperber, Boyer, Morin).
Heyes's main point is (in Augustine's terms) that evolution through variation, selection and inheritance not only accounts for grists (behaviors, technology and beliefs), but also for mills (cognitive mechanism).
The selectionist view of culture comprises a teleosemantic conception of information, which reinstate the relevance of the much debated distinction between nature and nurture (which Heyes righfully enlarge into a biological/ environmental and socially derived / cultural informations (chapter 2)).
The (i) temperamental factors - greater social tolerance and motivation -, the (ii) attentional biases favoring (mere) faces and voices , and the (iii) enhanced executive function (comprising inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility), are viewed as evolutionary novelties that underlie the enhanced productivity of associative-predictive learning in our species compared to those of others. Instead of seeing shared attention like Michael Tomasello (as a primitive building block), Heyes argues that it rises from associative learning bolstered by social motivation and tolerance, and biased toward faces and direction of gaze (shared attention rises from reliably predicting the presence of interesting object or event from eye contact followed by attention to object or event; and from reliably predicting that pointing to object or event will attract other's attention to it).
The concept of cultural learning has been around for some time, and was taken to refer to specialized mechanisms distinct from social and asocial learning, but Heyes sharpen the perspective by bringing into view some key proposals as to what learning amounts to in the first place, and as to what learned, specific learning mechanism acquired through explicit instructions or through conversational type of interaction can add to the high-fidelity inheritance of enhanced traits (chapter 4).
The capacity of old, core cognitive processes (such as those underlying predictive, associative learning, and enforcement by response-contingent stimulus) to build complex cognitive mechanisms is demonstrated for selective (biased) social learning (learning through explicit metacognitive rules that define "who knows" and who should be taken as model, chapter 5), imitation (understood as matching vertical associations between motor and sensory sequences, chapter 6), mindreading (chapter 7) and language (which she approach as an outsider, but quite an informed one, chapter 8).
Cultural group selection (chapter 9) where groups with x variant of learned cognitive mechanisms out-populate those with y variant through demographic growth and migrant attraction, is defined as one evolutionary force (distinct from intelligent / intended designs, and from genetic evolution) likely to be coherent with a (yet to be written) narrative evolutionary theory.
Heyes shows a high sensitivity to distinctions, like those between ability and motivation, between submentalizing and mindreading, between implication (of a brain area in a particular process) and explanation, and between process (cognitive ones on an infra-personal level) and outputs. She also displays the art of clear writing, of putting whole chapters in a nutshell, and she masters a considerable body of literature in experimental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, developmental and comparative psychology.
All in all, Cognitive Gadgets convincingly proves how little, but crucial cognitive changes can bring huge differences, without these changes having been selected for definite problems in given contexts. The impossibility, for core, general cognitive processes structured through social intercourse, to give rise to complex learning seems to be a premature and unwarranted belief. As Heyes testifies, predictive learning has been considerably refined and experimentally re-grounded since the fall of behaviorism. Through a measured and precise targeting of evolutionary psychologists' and cultural evolutionists' weaknesses, subterfuge and short-cuts, Heyes shatters their over-reliance on genetic evolution and on pretended instinctive information-processing and learning mechanisms. Genetic inheritance can't be taken as a by default mode of explanation by any scientific standard. Readers will find firm grounds to depart from ill-guided stances and to design sophisticated researches, which will hopefully come in many.
'The influence of cultural evolution is not confined to the grist of human thought. It has also shaped the mills. Distinctively human cognitive processes are products of cultural group selection. They are not cognitive instincts, but cognitive gadgets.
On the cognitive gadgets view, rather than taxing an outdated mind, new technologies - social media, robotics, virtual reality - merely provide the stimulus for further cultural evolution of the human mind.'
Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking by Cecilia Heyes
In a recent interview* Professor Cecilia Heyes told me that the goal of her book Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking is to ask why human lives are “so strange, relative to those of other animals.” She particularly wants to understand why our minds seem to be so different from that of other animals. Heyes has spent her career as a cognitive psychologist studying phenomena such as learning, so-called “mind reading,” and imitation because many scientists have assumed that humans have inherited innate abilities in these areas.
Professor Heyes challenges long-held assumptions about these abilities by describing the evidence that these skills are actually acquired gradually by learning from the culture around us. Thus she proposes a distinction between a cognitive gadget, which is a cognitive skill acquired via cultural learning and the better known cognitive instinct, which is assumed to be innate.
The most obvious example of a cognitive gadget is reading since written language clearly appeared too recently (about 5,000 years ago) to have become part of our genetic make up. In contrast, “mind-reading,” imitation, and language are often assumed to be cognitive instincts.
This book is academic and evidence focused. Heyes takes the reader through quite a few technical details before embarking on a detailed discussion of the evidence that these skills are in fact cognitive gadgets, acquired via learning from the culture around us. Her discussion of language is particularly compelling because she came to language as a neutral outsider and actually expected it to stand up as an example of a cognitive instinct. If you still think language is an instinct this is a good introduction to the evidence that it is actually a cognitive gadget.
The implication that many of our most distinctive cognitive skills are culturally acquired has several important implications. First, it means that there are actually three important factors to consider when studying our cognitive abilities: nature, nurture, and culture. We are not stuck with “Stone Age” minds as evolutionary psychologists often claim, but our cognitives skills may be more fragile than is generally imagined.
Cognitive Gadgets is not aimed at the general reader, but its ideas are clearly presented and thought-provoking. It should be read by everyone who is interested in cognitive psychology.
The book argues for cultural evolutionary psychology, which tries to bridge evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory. With cognitive science as the foundation, it argues that what makes us special is cognitive gadgets. Our cognitive ability is constructed through childhood with social interaction, and not as reliant on instincts as much as we think.
It goes over several fields arguing why the view that our cognitive framework is genetic is misguided. For example, in language, she argues that it's learning is socially constructed. This may seem obvious, but she isn't arguing that learning a specific language is cultural, but rather, the very act of learning itself is, and not genetic. This is what Chomsky argued, now known as universal grammar. But she presents evidence of why we don't need a universal grammar to see how language is learned.
Another example is from developmental psychology. We think that humans are incredibly wired to imitate, but she argues that a lot of that learning is actually social, and not necessarily instinctual. Babies and children imitate because we socially encourage and reward imitation. This is very counter-intuitive and against how we typically think of it, but it was well argued for.
The overall tone of the book is that the cognitive mechanisms that we think are distinctively human, and thus exclusive to adults and passed down by genes, is often just cultural learning. And many of those mechanisms aren't special new cognitive functions but rather "upgraded" versions of previous functions that aren't exclusively human at all.
I was very excited about the book based on its premise, but it was rather disappointing. I think it was well-argued but was incredibly tedious. The overall case for the role of culture and social learning was well done, but I always had the feeling that it made it sound like it was a much bigger deal than it was.
Most problematically, the book is surprisingly dense. This was a surprise to me because it's not really marketed as such, but is quite academic. There is technical jargon everywhere, and each school of thought is explained in detail, often way more than necessary. I'm doing a psychology degree, so I have a much better background than most for the field, and despite this a lot of times it was incredibly hard to read.
In some cases, I got completely lost, and I had no idea what she was talking about, or couldn't logically follow her arguments. To be fair, I listened to the audiobook, which made this more difficult. But despite this, I'm positive that the book would still be quite difficult if I had read it instead.
There are a few good ideas in the book, and it very scientifically sound. But nevertheless, I don't think what is presented is as revolutionary unless one is complete genetic deterministic, which is close to no one nowadays. Furthermore, the book is very dense. Unless you have a very good background in psychology, cognitive science, you will absolutely get lost.
Besides the difficulty, sometimes it's just plain boring. I can't see how someone can be excited about this book unless they are part of the field. For most people, this just seems way too specific and technical. I honestly regret reading it. I kept thinking it would be worth it if I just got through this specific part... but it was the same throughout. The few interesting bits I learned didn't pay off, and I can't say I remember much beyond the general direction of her argument.
Super thought-provoking and full of great new information, which is hard to do in mind/behavior books that usually repeat so many of the same stories with different emphases. If anything the problem with this book was that it went too fast. It did a great job of acknowledging competing theories and admitting humility towards its own stance, but I wish it had indulged itself in explaining/fortifying its own positions a bit more. Nonetheless, the evidence presented is highly compelling, particularly because it comes across so many different domains (twin studies, wealth of stimulus, etc). I'm very curious to hear what the response has been like to this book. As always this feels like one of those cases where I read the book and I don't know how it could not be right (despite its humility), but then I read something else and completely flip my position. The book did a great job of mapping debates in the different areas it discusses to explain exactly where her theory fits in, though I am still a bit confused as to exactly where the differences lie with Henrich/California school accounts of behavior (though this is probably more a product of fast listening speed not giving me time to process fully). I'm surprised this book hasn't gotten more press because the implications are so large for studies of theory of mind/behavior. Particularly since the ideas are highly compatible with more "humanistic" explanations of behavior I'm surprised it hasn't been picked up by the humanities as evidence of their importance. I would like to more fully understand the implications of theory towards just how "gadget" dependent human psychology is, but this is a great starting point, and I hope to see more research/debate on this in the future.
I saw Hayes' keynote presentation at a conference and was impressed by the lucidity of their talk, creativity of experimental setups, and ostensible impact of the results they presented so I thought to pick up their newest book.
I was as shocked at how unintelligibly this is written as I was amazed by the brief summary of their research at the conference. As an example, the new, impactful framework that is presented in the book is supposed to bridge the gap between *evolutionary psychology* and *cultural evolutionary theory*. It is denoted *cultural evolutionary psychology*. It shocks me that a renowned cognitive scientist would think this nomenclature is reader-friendly. Further chapters go on to distinguish between these viewpoints which I found impossible to follow because I couldn't tell which framework was being discussed.
I can't recommend this book unless you're willing to spend lots of time re-reading and taking notes to keep up with the differences between: evolutionary psychology, cultural evolutionary theory, cultural evolutionary psychology, social learning, cultural learning, individual learning, genetic evolution, cultural evolution, cultural inheritance, selective social learning, domain general learning, etc.
One of the most compelling books of cognitive science I've read in a long time. Heyes covers a huge amount of ground in a relatively short book: her core argument involves a novel view of the evolutionary basis of human behavior based on a comprehensive theory of metacognitive capacities (the "gadgets" of the title) and how they're passed on, but in demonstrating her idea of "cultural evolutionary psychology" she also gives compelling reinterpretations of how humans learn to pay attention, to imitate, to "mindread," and to use language. She even manages to sneak in a short personal definition of "human nature." The notion that the standard patterns of associational learning present in all animals are the basis for humans' unique, domain-specific methods of learning is counterintuitive at first, but by the end of the book I was convinced that Heyes has bridged a vital gap and put the uniquely "cultural" aspects of human life on a far firmer genetic/mechanical ground without giving fodder to crass biological determinism.
As someone with oblique professional interest in cognitive science, this book was promising. It challenged a Chomsky theory regarding language evolution, & purports itself as a bridge between two prominent theories in the world of evolutionary thought. Instead of demystifying the language & concepts as all truly great works do, this just seems to create more tangles. The writing style, the bombarding with bombastic passages instead of tangible examples & elucidation killed it for me.
I DNF, which is a rarity for me, but this book is a Gordian Knot of its own making. You cannot use explanations to explain your thesis, I'm sorry. While there are certainly some scientific gems in here & an overall fantastic aggregation of literature sources & findings, the content is too mechanical to be of any pragmatic use.
To be frank, I don't think I'm smart enough to understand this book. As least with regards to its subject matter. I probably should have given up after a chapter or two. I only stuck with it because what little I did understand was interesting, and I was curious about the chapter on language (which also confused me).
Keeping all that in mind, this is probably a moronic comment, but it seemed to me that many of her conclusions could have been reached by just noting the differences between various cultures, which would show proof of cultural evolutionary psychology as opposed to purely biological evolution. Then, taking that as a starting point, we could analyze whether the commonalities evolved from a fixed proto-human culture or not.
This book is not for the layman, but is still accessible. It describes the theory of cultural evolutionary psychology a.k.a "cognitive gadgets". The theory describes how the distinctively human characteristics of the mind (literacy, numeracy, language, mirroring, mind reading) can be developed from general purpose structures. This is divergent from other theories that rely more on cognitive instincts (genetics) to describe these same characteristics of the mind.
I was hoping to get some clues as to assist in general purpose AI, this book was not that. It is an interesting theory that is coherent and testable. The book makes a very compelling argument for the theory and addresses the arguments made against it.
This was an interesting book that took a fresh take on how thinking evolved based on social interactions. There’s an interesting blend of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Some of the topics definitely went over my head, which made it a little difficult to read at times, so it may not be the best choice for the average reader. Although it was hard to keep up with at points, I definitely found the theories the author presented pretty interesting, and it got me thinking.
I learned things and changed my outlook on some topics - a valuable read.
(Although it dwells longer on what shade of belief each academic subdiscipline and school of thought holds than I really care about. I guess I at least finally learned about what exactly made Chomski so prominent in linguistics and how he's very likely wrong.)
Evolutionary psychologist Cecilia Heyes’s take on the cultural evolution question.
Heyes differs from “high church” evolutionary psychology in that she is skeptical of the “cognitive module” theory where by evolution endowed humans with a cluster of hardwired, function specific modules e.g. Chomsky’s theoretical language acquisition device (LAD) or the facial recognition module posited to be localized in the fusiform gyrus.
Heyes also differs from the “ California school” of gene-culture coevolution, in that she feels that the phylogenic effects of cultural processes are less enduring than figures like Joseph Henrich assert, and argues that the California school is not clear about the precise selection pressures and criteria that govern the process of conservation of one cultural product over another.
Heyes posits Cognitive Gadget theory as a third stream, arguing that so-called “Gadgets” such as imitation and mind reading are reinforced via social learning, but are not as “hard wired” as the other schools claim.
If I have all of that right.
And I’m not 100% sure if I do.
Than I have to admit, I’m not 100% convinced.
I’m not even all that interested.
And I would attribute most of this to the fact that I just didn’t enjoy the book.
The writing style was very aversive to me.
Probably over thought.
Which is important in academic short form writing.
But deadly in popular long from writing.
I probably wouldn’t have finished it.
But I’m terribly interested in the subject of evolutionarily psychology, and particularly culture-gene coevolution lately.
Many features of Homo sapiens have been considered as special of significant as the source of what makes humans different from animals. Often, the features that are typically discussed, e.g. sociality, language, mind-reading, and so on, are just assumed to be part of the genetic endowment of Homo sapiens. Cecilia Heyes argues that culture is much more important in the formation, maintenance and transfer of these features than typically assumed.
I am in general sympathetic to Heyes thesis. Culture is a absolutely essential aspect of what it is to be human, and any account that does not contain that realization is severely flawed. But the arguments made in this book do not quite convince me. They are interesting and worth discussing, and she does make a number of good critical points about competing theories, such as Noam Chomsky's account of language. But I close the book with a feeling of not having gotten a very good idea of how the cognitive gadgets actually work, in part because I wish there had been a more concrete discussion of a few examples. To be sure, she discusses several examples, such as language, but somehow these discussions are on a level of abstraction that does not quite hit home. Somehow, I am left unsatisfied.
Great addition to the debate as to what exactly is human nature. The author refrains from going far in her conclusions, which is fine, but that would have been the most interesting part of the book so it's a bit of a letdown, but it's certainly an important book nonetheless.