Although I’ve been reading at least as much as ever, it’s been difficult to find time to post about the books, given the length of my To Do list and the depth of untackled emails. One book I finished a while ago and wanted to flag up was Cognitive Gadgets: the cultural evolution of thinking by Cecilia Heyes. This is outside my territory, but as she incorporates cognitive science and linguistics in her work, I’ll be bravely inter-disciplinary too.
The book’s argument – as the subtitle flags up – is that humans’ distinctive cognitive abilities are due to cultural evolution rather than genetic. It considers the evidence for cognitive differences between human babies and newborn chimps, and concludes that are rather subtle although importantly including a greater human ability to learn, and to remember. Then as humans grow we acquire our far greater distinctive cognitive skills from the society around us – they are not encoded in our minds, they are not simply shaped by social learning, but rather mechanisms or ways of thinking that have been built by cultural evolution: “They are cognitive gadgets rather than cognitive instincts: pieces of mental technology that are not merely tuned but assembled in the course of childhood through social interaction.” Some parts of the gadgetry will of course be inherited genetically, but the assemblage is the result of natural selection operating on cultural variation.
The book argues that this approach overcomes one of the issues with the idea of memes, because the issue is what units are memes measured in? What does the force of natural selection actually operate on – tunes, ideas and other memes? This seems unlikely. Heyes suggests the memes are grist to the mill of cognitive mechanisms such as causal understanding, imitation, reading aloud, causal inference, language, and other ‘gadgets’. The best gadgets thrive in the cultural evolutionary process. When it comes to inheritance mechanisms, it is social and cultural learning. This can largely occur inside individuals’ minds, but can also involve social processes such as story-telling, learning to take turns, group dances, even teaching.
History suggests that these have been quite robust – here we are, after all, with all the warp and weft of modern life. However, the theory does suggest a certain vulnerability, as many of these mechanisms could fail to be passed on: “The cognitive instinct view implies that human nature is relatively invulnerable to catastrophe. In a decimated and isolated human population … the group would lose some of its knowledge and skills. However, with each birth there would be a new child equipped with Big Special cognitive instincts. … In contrast the cognitive gadgets view implies that both grist and mills would be lost. … The capacity for cultural evolution, as well as the products of cultural evolution, could be lost.” We are already failing to pass on to many children some quite basic (you’d have thought) gadgets such as critical thinking. Heyes specifically suggests looking at how moral learning has evolved and continues to do so.
Anyway, amateur that I am, I found this a persuasive approach and a really interesting book to read. It suggests a different approach to thinking about decision-making – not for example as a matter of setting up choices in ways that nudge flawed humans to do the right thing (but then what makes the choice architects any wiser?). Instead the engineering challenge is devising better gadgets, which is surely difficult but then humanity has invented them before.