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.