Evolutionary Psychology

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Chris Knight:

"The ‘culture in mind’ (Shore 1996) approach stands diametrically opposed to the school of thought known as ‘evolutionary psychology’ (Tooby 1985; Pinker 1997). As if Alan Turing (1950) had teamed up with William Hamilton (1964) and Robert Trivers (1971), Pinker belongs to a movement seeking to link the artificial intelligence revolution of the 1950s-1960s with the more recent ‘selfish gene’ (Dawkins 1976) revolution in the life-sciences. Following the success of The Language Instinct (1994), Pinker’s How the Mind Works is an engrossing, enjoyable and openly partisan account of the mind as a product of evolutionary design.

Pinker’s point of departure is a thoroughgoing materialism. Philosophers have long debated an apparent conundrum. If ‘mind’ is irreducible to the materiality of ‘brain’, how can it nonetheless engage with and influence the physical world? Telecommunications and artificial intelligence metaphors have enabled us to set aside that problem. Mind is not spirit, yet neither is it matter. It is information. A message in morse code remains unaffected by whether the medium is light or sound. Each sequence of dots and dashes, while autonomous with respect to the physical medium, is nonetheless bound up with it and capable of producing physical effects. To grasp this is to understand how ‘mind’, while not reducible to ‘matter’, is nonetheless materially active and effective. There is really no mystery any more (Fodor 1968; Dennett 1978; Pinker 1997).

Evolutionary psychology extends the computer metaphor to explain why learning is necessary but insufficient in explaining the workings of mind. Imagine a personal computer which initially ‘knows’ nothing at all – not even what a floppy disc is. The instructions specify that you must first ‘teach’ the machine by inserting a disc. We can see at once that this is a logical paradox. Only a machine set up with prior information about discs – that is, one equipped with specialized adaptations for reading them – could possibly learn anything from such a device. By the same token, no-one disputes that the human brain develops and functions through learning. It achieves this by combining inputs from alternative sources, such as visual perception, intuitive mind-reading and language. But in each case, sense can be made of the input only thanks to equipment previously installed. If a child spontaneously mind-reads from cues provided by the eyes (Baron-Cohen 1995), or computes the basic grammar of a language after hearing only fragmentary utterances (Pinker 1994), it is because there is a sense in which it ‘knows’ in advance what kinds of inputs to expect." (http://www.chrisknight.co.uk/1997/06/16/culture-cognition-and-conflict/)