This is Rob Kurzban, and I’m delighted to be the new Mind Editor for This View of Life.

The Mind section bears an unusual relationship with some of the other sections of the magazine: after all, Culture, Arts, Religion, and Politics, to name a few of the other sections, are all products of minds. The Mind section will therefore overlap and link to many other areas of the magazine, and my hope is that these links will help to stimulate interesting comments, cross-talk, and conversations.

In this first post, I want to say a little bit about the mind and why I think that using evolution to understand it is important.

Though the term “mind” means different things to different people, it is currently used in psychology and cognitive science to refer not to the brain, but rather what the brain does: processing information. The thinking that the mind does is, then, computation. At the very broadest level, the mind takes in information from the world through the senses, executes computations based on this information, and then produces behavior. The job of psychologists is to figure out all the steps in between, what computations the mind actually does when it’s going about its business. (The best overview of how the mind works is still, in my view, How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker.)

Just like the other bits of the body, the mind, then, is for something. Hands are for grasping, hearts are for pumping blood, and minds are for producing behavior. This last, of course, is far too coarse a description of what minds are for to be much good, yet it is crucial. Knowing that minds are for something makes it clear that the task of behavioral scientists is reverse engineering: figuring out, in detail, the jobs the mind does.

This simple idea points to why using an evolutionary approach to understanding the mind is crucial: the mind’s parts have functions, and evolution tells us what sorts of functions the mind might have. That is, the theory of evolution by natural selection tells us the sorts of things that machines built by evolution ought to be expected to do, namely arrange the body in ways that lead to survival and reproduction.

This logic points to function as a unifying idea when studying the mind. The computations that the mind executes should be expected to be designed to do something evolutionarily useful. This idea is uncontroversial for many of the mind’s jobs. For instance, everyone understands that the systems that underlie vision, memory, the regulation of autonomic functions and so on have their particular properties because those properties contributed to survival and reproduction. Indeed, for many parts of the mind, the only way to talk about them is in terms of function. There’s just no other way to talk about, say, a putative “face recognition” system without talking about its function, recognizing faces. Many parts of the mind are uncontroversially functional.

The last quarter of a century or so has seen the extension of this logic to every aspect of what the mind is up to, especially functions surrounding the social world, including relationships, cooperation, friendship, and morality. Every day scholars are making advances in understanding what, specifically, the computations that cause social behavior are for. The key insight that started it all was, of course, that social behavior requires the same functional analysis as other things that bodies do. In the eighties and nineties, E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology was supplemented by the information-processing understanding of the mind, bringing us to where we are today.

Well, not all of us. For reasons that I don’t completely understand, the extension of Darwin’s theory of evolution from the rest of the biological world – the structure of organisms’ bodies and the details of their behavior – to human social behavior elicited resistance that began in E. O. Wilson’s day and continues to the present.

A thin but vocal community continues to resist the application of evolutionary principles to the human mind. These voices of opposition can be found in particular volume in the blogosphere, though the controversy finds a home as well in books and the scholarly literature.

Many people who insist on evolutionary explanations for all other parts of the biological world balk when it comes to the human mind, and, particularly, the parts of the human mind that cause social behavior. To me, it has sometimes felt as though there is some barrier that must not be crossed, that social behavior ought to have its own, special domain of explanation, different from the rest of biology. However, the human mind, like the rest of the human form, is incredibly well designed; its functional complexity requires an explanation, and other than evolution by natural selection, there is just no scientific candidate. Many critics incorrectly believe that “learning,” “culture,” and “plasticity” are (alternative) explanations, as opposed to what they really are: phenomena that an evolutionary approach to the mind must and can help to explain. Single-word “explanations” such as these are the lazy person’s placebo explanation, satisfying only to the uncurious who don’t look any more deeply beneath the surface.

It’s important to note that many critics of the application of Darwinian principles to the mind are skeptical of crossing this frontier mostly because they don’t really understand the ideas that animate the science. At my institution, the University of Pennsylvania, I am told that “real” science majors – physics, chemistry, etc. – laugh up their sleeves at the psychology majors, which is seen as an “easy” science. In my (admittedly biased) experience, many people outside the field underestimate how difficult psychology is, so they don’t spend a lot of time learning about the field as it currently exists.

This omission, sadly, leads to some mistaken views about how evolutionary approaches to the mind are currently constituted. Critics often make mistakes that even a little formal education cures; these errors include thinking that people who apply evolution to psychology believe in genetic determinism, seek individual genes for behaviors, are on the “nature” side of the (phantom) nature/nurture debate, and so on. I encourage readers of this magazine to be critical, but I very much hope that criticism is informed criticism, making debates and discussions of maximal utility for readers.

Welcome to the Mind section. I hope you’ll enjoy exploring with me.

Published On: July 30, 2013

5 Comments

  • Clarence Williams says:

    Very well written, Robert, but as the old adage goes, “the devil is in the details.”  While it is easy for most scientists to agree with what you’ve written in this introduction – including some who are critics of the narrow-sense school of evolutionary psychology represented by Tooby, Cosmides, Buss, Symons and others – that agreement often breaks down when details are introduced.

  • John Kubie says:

    I think you can divide “mind” (which is roughly, consciousness) into two segments: the part with clear functions, like planning, deciding, movement generation, perception, concept formation, event memory, etc. And a second part of ‘qualia’. What it feels like to be conscious. If we think of designing a robot with all of the functional characteristics of mind, will it have consciousness? Qualia? I’m just not sure. This is the “hard problem” as described by David Chalmers. Is consciousness just a sum of understandable functions, or something more? So far, I see little progress.

  • Immunophilosopher says:

    Whilst Kurzban is correct that some inept critics of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) do indeed miss the mark, unfortunately he commits the same mistake himself by offering a misleading characterisation of the more careful critiques of his discipline by serious scholars. 

    Reading this piece, one would be left with the false impression that these bad arguments are the ONLY criticisms that have been raised against EP, which could not be further from the truth.  As Clarence Williams alludes to above, even many of EP’s critics would agree that these arguments don’t work!

    Whilst the misunderstandings of EP cited are indeed common, especially in popular articles written by non-academics, the author fails to mention the many intellectually responsible critics of EP who do not make these errors!  It is understandable that he wishes to defend his discipline, but “fighting fire with fire” by arguing against a strawman of his critics does not improve matters. 

    Accusing them of simply being too “lazy” and “uncurious” to engage with EP, or in need of “a little formal education” is an outlandish statement that is simply false, as many of them are serious scholars in their own right who have written entire books and journal articles devoted to examining and critiquing aspects of the EP paradigm (look up David Buller, Massimo Pigliucci, Mary Midgley, Stephen Rose, Jerry Fodor, Raymond Tallis, and that’s just for starters!), or conducted their own research to produce alternatives. 

    They do not make fallacious appeals to mystery, but advise epistemic humility about the extent of our knowledge.  Neither do they simply assert that a single word like “culture” or “plasticity” (without further explanation) somehow makes EP invalid (I am unaware of any intellectually serious critic of EP ever making an argument this blatantly fallacious).  They merely make use of such concepts to express scepticism about the EXTENT to which human behaviours are innate rather than acquired, a key point of contention even within EP. 

    Instead, their criticisms focus on questioning the excessive claims made by EP researchers, investigating the legitimacy of the assumptions in their models, and demonstrating a healthy scientific scepticism about whether evolutionary explanations of human psychology can ever be sufficient.

    For those who want to find out what informed EP critics REALLY think and argue, I recommend reading “Adapting Minds” by David Buller, who summarises most of the key points of contention.  A sample is available on Google Books:

    http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Adapting_Minds.html?id=dQ5MGDvn8eIC&redir_esc=y

    and it is reviewed here by Jerry Fodor, who also includes an overview of his own ideas on the subject:

    http://niu.edu/phil/~buller/publications/_pdf/tlsrev.pdf

    And then, once you’ve finished, make sure to read the criticisms and responses to Buller written by Tooby, Cosmides and other EP researchers, in which they defend their ideas against his attacks:

    http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/buller.htm

    Personally, I believe that their defence fails, but read both and then judge for yourself.  Whatever you decide, you will end up with a much more informed opinion on the current debate than Kurzban’s rather one-sided article.  The author admits that he doesn’t “completely understand” the critics of EP.  He might be able to remedy this situation if he followed his own advice, and represented their position fairly.

    —————————————-

    I also concur with John Kubie’s point about the “hard problem” of consciousness, although I would go further than he does.

    Whether or not the human mind can ever be fully described in terms of computation is still a live topic of considerable debate among philosophers and scientists.  Thus, to describe mental functions as computation without further argument, is to beg the question.

    There is a wealth of information about this ongoing debate in this article, and in the links at the bottom of it:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/computational-mind/

    • Paula Wright says:

      “There is perhaps more to find fault with in Darwin’s later books, The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions, which have been taken as foundational gospels by the rather vulgar group who call themselves evolutionary psychologists. As a biologist and Darwinian I take it for granted that human psychology has been shaped by our evolutionary past. But EP’s claims go far beyond this, arguing that “human nature” was fixed in the stone age” Stephen Rose

  • Clarence Williams says:

    I hope Robert’s future essays will tackle issues one by one, that is, focus on point at a time.  “Immunophilosopher’s” post, for instance, is too expansive.  Discussing Buller’s book is also inappropriate, as that would bog us down with too many separate issues, and is a common tactic of a disingenuous critic.  For instance, I would like to know more about EP’s position in regard to “genes and adaptations.”  My understanding of genetics and natural selection suggests that if you invoke the term “adaptation” you MUST also invoke genes in some very specific manner.  If you identify an adaptation, you must now identify the change in the genome or its expression that resulted in this adaptation.  There are many complexities after this simple and roughly stated, “adaptation = gene change,” but (to repeat for emphasis), if you say it is an adaptation, YOU have opened up this genetic line of inquiry.  Barkow, Tooby and Cosmides’s discussion in The Adapted Mind simply dodged the issue by discussing how difficult it is to isolate the genetic causes of an adaptation.  They did a nice job discussing the complexities and tight connection between G x E, but seemed to suggest that was the “end of the gene story.”  EP cannot dodge the issue, but in discussing this particular criticism (or others), I hope we avoid side trips into other issues.  One at time is best.

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