Every week there seems to be a new finding that chips away at the good, old-fashioned notion of human exceptionalism. Dogs can tell time. Certain plants have rudimentary memories. Countless primates, otters, and dolphins use tools. Who could blame a person for questioning just how different we are from our non-human companions? But then a book like Cecilia Heyes’ Cognitive Gadgets comes along and rekindles not so much the feeling of being exceptional but the sense of amazement at being human. Our capacity to work through problems with our neighbors without resorting to violence, our ability help someone we never met and anticipate their needs, and the fact that somehow we are able to grow and develop from babies into adults reminds us that while we may no longer be quite as exceptional as we once believed, we are still, without a doubt, special.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Let’s start with the obvious. Why did you choose the term “cognitive gadgets’? More specifically, what is it in the word “gadget” that suits the theory you are proposing in your book?

CECILIA HEYES: I chose “gadget” to acknowledge a debt and mark a contrast. The debt is to evolutionary psychology, which brought together Darwinism and cognitive science about 25 years ago. Following Steven Pinker, evolutionary psychologists say that distinctively human cognitive mechanisms – such as language, mindreading, causal reasoning, imitation, moral cognition – are ‘cognitive instincts’. I agree that these mechanisms are products of Darwinian selection, but I argue that the selection has been cultural rather than genetic. So, distinctively human cognitive mechanisms, like gadgets, come from human rather than genetic action, and they are small tools that make a big difference. Most human behaviour is controlled by mechanisms, many of them genetically inherited, that we have in common with other animals, but cognitive gadgets are what make our lives so different from theirs. (I also love the sound of the word “gadget” – almost as much as “rapture”, but I could hardly call them “cognitive raptures”!)

SI: According to cultural evolutionary psychology, how are traits selected for or against? Do cognitive gadgets influence the fitness of human beings?

CH: Sometimes cognitive gadgets are positively selected because they enhance fitness in the familiar way. That is, having a new variant of a gadget – for example, a superior mechanism for imitation – increases the number of biological children produced by an individual or group, and, because the new gadget is passed on by social learning to biological children, thereby increases the proportion of people who have the new gadget rather than the old one. However, the fitness of a new gadget can also be increased by group copying or inward migration: members of other groups see that a focal group is thriving and therefore copy their social practices or opt to join that group. This kind of migration would be a Darwinian selection mechanism if the focal group is thriving, at least in part, because they have the new gadget.

SI: You say that mindreading is learned culturally. It seems like the ability to empathize overlaps with many of the mechanisms for mindreading. Is empathy a culturally inherited trait?

CH: Strangely enough, although I don’t talk about empathy in Cognitive Gadgets, I’m working on it at the moment. Looking at research with animals, infants and adults, I’ve been amazed to discover how important learning is in the development of even the most basic kind of empathy – emotional contagion. Earlier research, on imitation in newborns and infants’ feelings about ‘helpers’ and ‘hinderers’, suggested we have an instinct to feel with and for others, but that work is proving difficult to replicate. Instead there’s a wealth of evidence that to ‘catch’ another’s emotion, we need to have experienced the emotion ourselves while observing someone else in the same emotional state. ‘Affective mirroring’, when parents copy their babies’ expressions of happiness, sadness, anger and surprise, seems to be crucial for the early development of empathy. The importance of learning also explains why dogs can catch emotions from humans, and vice versa. So, yes, it’s beginning to look like empathy is also a gadget.

SI: Is the ability to think symbolically a cognitive instinct or a cognitive gadget?

CH: This is a tricky one because it is so difficult to pin down exactly what “symbolic thought” does or should mean. I regard it as thinking in words or, more formally, in propositions, and as a product of language learning. In that case, the question becomes “Is language a cognitive instinct or a cognitive gadget?”, and I don’t think we know yet. The instinct view gets a lot of airtime, in academic circles and public life, in part because of the brilliance and agility of its founder, Noam Chomsky. But the gadget view is rapidly gaining ground. For example, recent research indicates that FOXP2 is involved in sequence learning, rather than being a “language gene”; that Specific Language Impairment isn’t, in fact, specific to language; and that artificial systems can master grammatical rules without being given innate grammar.

SI: In your theory, where do cultural artifacts like books or music fit in? For example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Are they dead ends or do they in turn become a means of transmitting certain cultural knowledge?

CH: Literary and artistic genres are things with evolutionary histories of their own. Whether or not those histories are evolutionary in the strong sense – based on a Darwinian selection process – is a topic of fierce debate. But the focus of cultural evolutionary psychology is not the grist of the mind, but the mills. It is mainly concerned, not with the things that human minds work on and produce, including literature and music, but on how human minds work – how cognitive mechanisms operate. Reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or other literary fiction, is important insofar as it helps to build a mindreading gadget.

SI: Finally, what research needs to be done in order to strengthen your cognitive gadgets theory? What is the biggest question facing cultural evolutionary psychology?

CH: The cultural evolutionary perspective opens new paths for research. Because cultural evolution is faster than genetic evolution, the cognitive gadgets approach suggests we can discover how new cognitive mechanisms are built by looking at contemporary and historical populations. We don’t have to rely on stones and bones to guess how cognitive mechanisms were put together by genetic evolution in the Pleistocene past. Through laboratory experiments and field studies, we can watch them being constructed in people alive today. So, we need research tracking how distinctively human cognitive mechanisms change over time and across cultures. The biggest question is: How far does it go? For example, is it only social cognitive mechanisms that are gadgets, or do we also have cultural evolution to thank for faculties such as mental mapping, episodic memory, and reason.

COGNITIVE GADGETS: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking by Cecilia Heyes | Listen to Cecilia Heyes discuss COGNITIVE GADGETS on the Social Science Bites podcast

For more information about Cecilia Heyes visit her webpage or follow her on Twitter @CeliaHeyes

IMAGE SOURCE: Harvard University Press

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