*Cognitive Gadgets*

The author is Cecilia Heyes, and the subtitle is The Cultural Evolution of Thinking, published by Harvard/Belknap.  It is not always a transparent read, but this is an important book and likely the most thoughtful of the year in the social sciences.

From the book’s home page:

…adult humans have impressive pieces of cognitive equipment. In her framing, however, these cognitive gadgets are not instincts programmed in the genes but are constructed in the course of childhood through social interaction. Cognitive gadgets are products of cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution. At birth, the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees. We are friendlier, our attention is drawn to different things, and we have a capacity to learn and remember that outstrips the abilities of newborn chimpanzees. Yet when these subtle differences are exposed to culture-soaked human environments, they have enormous effects. They enable us to upload distinctively human ways of thinking from the social world around us.

The key substantive points from this are malleability and speed of evolution, and overall in her theory there is a much lower reliance on cognitive instincts and thus a fundamentally different account of social evolution: “In contrast, the cognitive gadgets theory applies cultural evolutionary theory to the mechanisms of thought — the mental processes that generate and control behavior.”

And “…social interaction in infancy and childhood produces new cognitive mechanisms; it changes the way we think.”

The chapter on imitation is the best appendage to Girard on memesis I know.  One interesting point is that most people find it quite hard to imitate how they look to others when say they tell a joke or make love.  To imitate successfully, you need to develop particular sensorimotor capacities.  Otherwise, you can be thwarted by a kind of “correspondence” problem, not knowing how the objective and subjective experiences of imitation match up properly.  This too we learn through cultural gadgets.

Mindreading is also a mental gadget, it must be learned, and it is surprisingly similar to print reading.  In an odd twist on Julian Jaynes, Heyes suggests that humans five or six thousand years ago may not have had this capacity very strongly.  And as with print reading, there is cross-cultural diversity in mindreading.  There is no mindreading instinct and we all must learn it, autistics too.

What about language?  Rather than Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, there are instead “domain-general processes of sequence learning.”  This in turn leads to a complex and quite interesting take on how, while non-human animals do also have language, it is quite different from ours (p.187).

Most generally, if someone is trying to explain X, maybe both genetic/instinct and cultural evolution accounts of X are wrong — try a cultural gadget approach!  And think of this book as perhaps the best attempt so far to explain the weirdness of humans, relative to other animals.

Note also that in this view, humanity is relatively vulnerable to cultural catastrophes, as we cannot simply bounce back using enduring instincts.  Furthermore, social media may indeed matter a great deal, and in revisionist terms some parts of Marx are not as crazy as they may seem (my point this latter one, not hers).

I need more time (years?) to digest the contents of this book, and decide how much I agree.  It is somehow neither hard nor easy reading, but most MR readers should be able to make their way through it.  Highly recommended, it is likely to prove one of the most thought-provoking books of the year.

Buy it on Amazon here.  Here is a Heyes lecture on related ideas, also click through to part II.

Comments

"At birth, the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees. We are friendlier, our attention is drawn to different things, and we have a capacity to learn and remember that outstrips the abilities of newborn chimpanzees."

The complement to learning is of course teaching. My vague impression is that chimps don't feel much urge to teach other chimps (other than some mother-child basics), while humans have a much stronger Didactic Urge. For example, there are countless videos on Youtube of guys teaching you how to do things (change your oil, replace your laptop's battery, calculate the height of a flagpole, etc etc). If chimpanzees had Youtube, there would probably be a lot fewer such videos. "We're chimps, not chumps" seems to be the chimpanzee attitude toward teaching.

Is the "Didactic urge" instinctual or memetic, intrinsic or Hansonian?

Good questions ...

One of the goals of late 20th century ape research into teaching apes sign language was to not only find a genius ape who could learn human sign language, but who would and could effectively teach it to a child or sibling, thus establishing a culture of language.

More progress was made on the former than the latter. Whether the failure on the latter was due to lack of talent or desire among the pupils or the teacher is an interesting question, but not one I know the answer to.

There is a lot of scientific research into the gap in learning capacity between humans and other animals, but less study of the gap in teaching ability or the urge to teach in humans versus animals.

This is ironic because many of the lead researchers also have teaching duties.

Here's video of Loulis, the adopted son of Washoe the signing chimp, who learned some signs from Washoe:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55put3MLZcw

But scientists so far have not been able to jumpstart a signing ape culture that carries on indefinitely down the generations, with each new generation teaching the next.

Is this due to lack of learning ability/motivation or lack of teaching ability/motivation?

We should also consider the possibility (albeit low probability) that chimps have some superior way of communicating that is imperceptible to us and that the sign language that one ape learned was deemed useless and inferior to their mode of communication.

Thank you very much. I had never thought of these considerations before.

Why are Sailer's not very subtle racist comments about blacks tolerated on this blog?

Because what you consider "racist," the rest of us fair and open minded analysts call "facts that you find embarrassing and thus are in denial about."

It'll be a great day when humans can talk about primates without unsupported accusations of racism being thrown around.

It'll be a better day when we can talk about severe and obvious social shortcomings within ethnic subgroups without the same.

I don't give this a clean call, and in a better blog it wouild be stripped, for where it leads. I say that as the guy who was told in this blog's comments "if you are Jewish you aren't white."

Please learn this.

A nice new piece has appeared, endorsed by Steve Pinker.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/opinion/race-genetics.html

Woe to those who spent their life defending prejudices that were not just wrong, but also divisive, and harmful to American civic values.

Isn't it intrinsically racist to insist on interpreting every reference to chimps to be a coded reference to black Americans?

My guess is it is a joke. Admittedly one in somewhat poor taste.

Why would it be a joke? Comparing our species with other complicated primates (but still somewhat less complicated) is an important activity for both science and informed speculation.

While I am not at all a Sailer fan, I consider this a good insight and I give it a clean call.

"Why are Sailer’s not very subtle racist comments about blacks tolerated on this blog?"

Poe's Law.

Chimps do less virtue signaling.

'the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees'

How would anyone know? A brain can be measured in a variety of ways, but 'mind'? And one of the not so subtle differences, both in terms of mind and brain is the ability to comprehend, learn, and generate complex speech (including sign language in terms of 'speech,' not simply vocal utterances).

'from this are malleability and speed of evolution'

Well, to the extent that evolving social frameworks involve nurture, sure. The ability to comprehend, learn, and generate complex speech is nature, where nurture merely defines the particulars. (And forget about Chomsky - his Universal Grammar is illusory at best, unless one sets the universal human capacity for language as being the same as an universal grammar.)

'social interaction in infancy and childhood produces new cognitive mechanisms; it changes the way we think'

Makes one wonder if this author has any experience with what lay people call 'growing up.' Or whether she has spent much time living in another culture. As that allows one the chance to see that some cognitive mechanisms and ways we think are essentially universal, as part of being human.

'as we cannot simply bounce back using enduring instincts'

And yet, till now, we always have. For good or ill of course - one wonders what Peterson would have to say about the bad side of that process.

You ask a very good question- to which there is no good reply. How much of this exposition, I wonder, is even susceptible to 'hard scientific' analysis?

" . . . an important book and likely the most thoughtful of the year in the social sciences."

From TC's enthusiastic review, it sounds as if this social science title will be as close to offering "hard scientific analysis" as any that may yet appear in calendar year 2018. (The author's resort to "pieces of cognitive equipment" and "cognitive gadgets" hardly sounds eminently scientific, and as c_p observed, any "social science" consideration of "mind" to the exclusion of brain physiology and neurology in 2018 does not suggest any firm grasp of brain science.)

the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees

But the minds at 2 years or 5 years or 10 years are very different.

A fertilized human egg is only subtly different from a fertilized cow egg. That hardly means I have to look for some outside agent to explain why their brains are so different later.

(And there is actually at least one experiment where a human and chimp infant were brought up together. Not surprisingly, the two diverged as time went on.)

I am not sure this is really different from the points made in “ The secret of our success” ( Joseph Heinrich) and “ Darwin’s unfinished symphony: how culture made the human mind” (Kevin Leland).their main point : Unlike in other animals, Culture is driving human evolution. The learned and socially transmitted activities of our ancestors shaped our intellects through accelerating cycles of evolutionary feedback.

Those were not voices from the correct identity?

As I recall, Laland is very insistent that almost no deliberate teaching goes on in any non-human context. The impetus for "learning from others" almost always comes from the young or the lower status--and it's just watching and imitating.

The pleasant nature documentary hoo-hah about how "mother teaches her cubs to hunt" is just that.

It sounds like Andy Clark's externalism to me. The last Douglas North worked on that:
https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/serials/files/cato-journal/2005/1/cj25n1-19.pdf
From Clark he gets some theoretical scaffolding in his way of doing Economic History.

A narrow but I believe important qualifier to the ability to imitate is the ability to multi-task. Today we are very much aware of multi-tasking because that's what culture has taught the young. For older people, not so much. I have great difficulty multi-tasking, as I am distracted. The flip side is that I can focus like a laser (as long as I am not distracted). Multi-tasking isn't just for today's young (who engage in conversation, view their smart phones, send text messages to friends, read today's school assignment, drive a car, all at the same time). In times past it was important to be able to hunt for game while being aware of potential dangers lurking all around. At some point in evolution, we lost some of that ability to multi-task, partly because potential dangers weren't lurking all around and partly because culture taught us to be quiet, sit up straight, and listen to the teacher. Here's an odd cultural phenomenon: Donald Trump is our first multi-tasking president! Trump famously can't focus on any one subject, and skips from one to another, the last person to whom he talks having the greatest influence on him. Nemesis being an essential part of the human condition, Trump is greatly influencing our culture. For example, after his election the incidents of aggressive behavior in the country spiked. And it doesn't take a laser focus to discern an inability of many to focus at all. Indeed, I'm always amazed at how easily readers of this blog are distracted by a comment off-topic. But I don't wish to distract from my main point, which is that Trump is taking the culture back to the time when the ability to multi-task was essential to survival as potential dangers were lurking all around. So don't be quiet and listen to others and, above all else, don't focus on anything that requires any thought.

Dude, you are just old. Xtasking is about speed and flexibility of attention. Nobody Xtasks, we just quickly shift frim task to task. It is the quick shift you have lost - you lose thread when attention shifts.

Dont conflate multitasking with short attention spans and lack of focus. The latter often attempts to present itself as the former, I.e. the weak pretending to be strong.

"Dont conflate multitasking with short attention spans and lack of focus. "

That's a good point, but humans don't generally mulitask with multiple cognitive tasks. Not to any great degree. Certainly nothing like a CPU with multi-cores.

People that are good multitaskers are good at quickly switching back and forth between tasks with minimal time to get focused on the current task.

What you are calling multi-tasking is really parallel processing - actually processing more than one data flow at one time. I don't know the biology, but I suspect skeet shooting - watching the target and moving the point of aim - would be an example.

What's usually termed multi-tasking is really serial processing, but usually with fast context switching - with computers its so fast that its below human perception thresholds. Some people seem to have lower context switching costs than others.

I remember a study many years ago that it took people immersed in a complex cognitive task - say programming - about 15 minutes on average to recover concentration after being interrupted. So if the phone rings every 5 minutes ... Thereafter I tried to protect the software developers from casual interruption.

"I remember a study many years ago that it took people immersed in a complex cognitive task – say programming – about 15 minutes on average to recover concentration after being interrupted"

15 minutes for a simple language, yes. But it takes me 30+ minutes to get in the correct mental state for Transact SQL programming. Procedural languages are relatively intuitive for humans. Set based programming is not.

Good thing those programmers have latched onto slack to insure they never get any uninterrupted work time. I also wonder what this says about agile development methods. I kind of suspect any real engineers are shielded from this kind of expectation in companies where serious work needs to be done.

Actually I wonder if the tendency do procrastinate has something to do with this - if you leave something to the last minute you will prioritise that activity and ignore interruptions which you wouldn't ignore if you were instead working with plenty of time to finish. So you do it much faster when you do it last minute, which basically validates your decision to procrastinate, which makes you do it more and more.

You know the stereotype of the intellectual: lost in his thoughts. Today, what passes as an intellectual is someone making a good TED talk. Glynn W. Turner couldn't do it any better. God help us.

Rayward,

"..., Trump is greatly influencing our culture. For example, after his election the incidents of aggressive behavior in the country spiked."

Two questions and one observation:
1.Do you have evidence of that or is this just the output of your buggy cognitive gadget?
2. Perhaps the violence is coming from the embittered people with TDS (Trump derangement syndrome) - SJWs, BAMNers, and fascist Antifas and other Democrats?

Observation:
You have TDS.

"At some point in evolution, we lost some of that ability to multi-task, partly because potential dangers weren’t lurking all around and partly because culture taught us to be quiet, sit up straight, and listen to the teacher."

Not exactly. We labeled it ADHD and pathologized it to make better cogs for the oligarch machinery.

" Rather than Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, there are instead “domain-general processes of sequence learning. This in turn leads to a complex and quite interesting take on how, while non-human animals do also have language, it is quite different from ours (p.187)."

Kind of depends on your definition of language no? Chomsky and Pinker were careful to always define it as in a discrete hierarchical recursive system, which was they could claim that no animals had it. And you can also argue about what distinction there is between a discrete hierarchical recursive system and "domain-general processes of sequential learning".

Universal Grammar is not a sequential learning process. It's a supervised learning process. And Chomsky has explicitly argued against sequential learning as being sufficiently explanatory.

>the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees

Social "scientists" should be legally prevented from speaking about minds or brains.

I suggest we shorten social "scientists" and call them socialists - it is both shorter and more accurate.

This just sounds like a clone copy of Joe Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success. Not sure what Heyes has more to offer on these topics.

"We are friendlier, our attention is drawn to different things, and we have a capacity to learn and remember that outstrips the abilities of newborn chimpanzees. Yet when these subtle differences are exposed to culture-soaked human environments, they have enormous effects. They enable us to upload distinctively human ways of thinking from the social world around us."

I'm sorry -- what is novel here? Of course we aren't born with language, we are born with the capacity and predisposition to learn it. We aren't born knowing the social rules of our cultures, but with the same capacities and predispositions. Doesn't everybody already know this? (And what does using the word 'upload' rather than 'learn' add to the analysis?)

"There is no mindreading instinct and we all must learn it, autistics too."

Human infants are quite helpless. They have to learn virtually *everything*, up to and including how to control their fingers and toes. A mind-reading instinct, again, consists of a strong capacity and propensity to learn how to do it effortlessly and an automatically by interacting with other humans. There are no 'facial expression reading 101' classes for normal children -- none are needed. Autistic children, on the other hand, often do require explicit instruction and practice and struggle even then. That's what it looks like when the mind-reading instinct is missing or defective.

"At birth, the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees"

And a few days after conception, they're identical! Also identical to pigs and frogs.

From these facts we can draw the following conclusions:

Modern neuroscience seems to be saying "it's the hardware, stupid"!

Sounds like neuroeconomics and evolutionary origins of behavioral economics, just with different terms (gadgets instead of heuristics). Here is a book on evolutionary origin of behavioral economics and explanation of how heuristics to the caveman (or woman) helped in the survival of the species: Kenrick, D. T. & Griskevicius, V. (2013). The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think. Basic Books, New York.

Yes, heuristics! Executed by brain hardware.

"One interesting point is that most people find it quite hard to imitate how they look to others when say they tell a joke or make love. To imitate successfully, you need to develop particular sensorimotor capacities. Otherwise, you can be thwarted by a kind of “correspondence” problem, not knowing how the objective and subjective experiences of imitation match up properly. This too we learn through cultural gadgets."

What?

I must have a boring social life. I cannot recall an occasion when I tried to imitate how I made love for, say, a dinner party. Does this go on? Do imitators disrobe or exhibit stages of arousal?

Somebody please explain - I got stuck on that as well. And telling a joke? Like a joke on yourself? If I was demonstrating how I stepped on a rake or whatever, I would probably try to imitate the Three Stooges.

I guess we're not in the subset of "MR readers [that] should be able to make their way through it."

[Makes face. Or thinks she does.]

You need your neurons to work to run your cognitive gadgets. Check out the Phase 2 study on NR that came out yesterday in Nature Comm:

https://www.colorado.edu/today/2018/03/28/pill-staves-aging-its-horizon

Isn't this Hayek with different terminology and updated science? I'm thinking in particular of The Fatal Conceit and Law, Legislation, and Liberty vol. 1. Listening to the lecture, obviously haven't read her book yet, but she says for example the theory of mind or a canoe are products of evolution selected by the environment. The best canoe is selected based on fitness to the environment; the best theory of mind is selected by the groups that are relatively more successful. That's Hayek! She also says "genetic evolution has 'tweaked' the human mind" vis a vis a chimpanzee. That's Hayek again -- cultural evolution and genetic evolution work in tandem. The fragility of culture that is a result of all of this was also foreseen by Hayek. The last chapter of the Fatal Conceit is a fascinating defense of religion as a mechanism of defending evolved social advances against the attacks of simplistic rationality.

"The Cultural Evolution of Thinking" I would call it "devolution." Case in point the Tide Pod Generation and children's crusade. "Four Legs Good Two Legs Bad!"

Of course, the controversy today about cognition is the influence of genetics and race as opposed to the environment, with Murray and Harris and Sullivan on the side of genetics and race and now Ezra Klein on the side of historical factors including oppression and violence. Here is the link to Klein's essay: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/27/15695060/sam-harris-charles-murray-race-iq-forbidden-knowledge-podcast-bell-curve I would point out that Klein doesn't take the position that genetics and race play no part in cognition. His criticism of Murray and Harris is that they completely discount even the possibility that history may affect cognition. Sullivan jumps in on the side of Murray, arguing that even suggesting history may affect cognition is PC nonsense and actually encourages racism: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/03/denying-genetics-isnt-shutting-down-racism-its-fueling-it.html And never the twain shall meet.

You are correct, hysterical factors matter, especially in your posts.

Whenever I do research I go to Vox first, then Fox.

Vox and Fox, Huff and Slate,
Read it all, before it's too late!

Whatever you do, stay away from Nature and Science, they have math and graphs and such ...

History affects evolution...history affects biology.

With 70 percent of the best biomedical and social psychology studies and a whopping 90 percent if all tradable market anomaly studies unable to be replicated, what makes you think that this is any different?

Other than a belief in our newest and most corrupt religion: Scientism?

WTF?

Are there any other reviews of this book that anyone can recommend? It sounds very exciting but I worry that Tyler is leading me down a rabbit hole, and I'd like a second opinion.

What's wrong with rabbit holes?

How long have you got?

"Note also that in this view, humanity is relatively vulnerable to cultural catastrophes, as we cannot simply bounce back using enduring instincts."

This seems backward to me. The fundamental difference between chimps and humans is that chimps evolved to live in one place (a certain type of trees), while humans evolved to leave the trees and go everywhere. Humanity is uniquely immune to cultural catastrophe, because it has an ability to work around it, if only by moving elsewhere and starting over under new conditions. Enduring instincts only enable you to do the same thing over again, and if conditions have changed around you, you're out of luck. Chimp culture may be more hard-wired, but wires can be cut. Human culture is packet data.

I'm curious what a "cultural catastrophe" actually is. Voting for Trump? Mass automation? Huge numbers of people thinking carrots make you able to see in the dark?

Tyler, did you ever skim "Cheating monkeys and citizen bees" by Lee Dugatkin?

It is a pretty light read, but makes a strong case for a simple view that the more socially integrated a species is (the most extreme being ants, bees, etc) the more self-less its individuals are, and the more loosely connected a still social species is (monkeys, and probably us) the more likely "cheating" will ensue.

I think that bears on this bit: "there is no mindreading instinct and we all must learn it, autistics too." There is a story I remember, I think from that book, of chimpanzees living on a research island, where scientists would test them. One test was to give them treats (M&Ms) and see if they shared. It turns out that if they find the treats close to the group, they share. If they are bit away, they look around at their fellows, then sneak off with the M&Ms. That says to me that they mindread, they know there will be anger if they are seen not sharing.

Anyway, it supports my view that we are a social species, but not strongly so, as evidenced for anti-group group action.

We are nice to members of our group, but nasty to outsiders. It's all around you, and in you.

The American Experiment is about defining a nation of immigrants around a set of ideas. I am one of those who thinks it has been, with continuous improvement, hugely successful. Define the in-group large enough, and you reap huge gains.

I think one of the dark memes of our age is that we should abandon this success for a "preferred" internal strife.

"The American Experiment is about defining a nation of immigrants around a set of ideas."

The American Experiment with immigration stopped being practical when America drastically expanded the welfare state during the 1960's. When the average immigrant can't pay the median tax burden, you run into redistribution issues.

The new divisions are not at all limited to new immigrants. The signature move is to call an American born citizen a "Mexican" instead.

I'm having trouble figuring out what's new here other than the jargon. So, to sum up Cecilia Hayes believes most learning is domain-general, sequential and culturally generated? I'm curious then how she treats the research on learning sets or equivalence classes. What about the historical arguments against using sequential learning as a general/complete account of the learning process? I may have to look more into this, but I'm wondering how well this blog post describes her theory.

This stuff is so tiresome. No serious thinker worries about whether genes or culture are "more important" anymore. It is an ill-posed question. They interact in a non-linear fashion, which should have ended the debate about 50 years ago.

From this, in a simple and mathematically proveable way, comes the "mallability" finding. Human culture exhibits more variance over both time and space than human genes, so we have a much easier time detecting those "cognitive gadgets" that are driven by culture.

There is very serious work being done to parse the relative contributions to this, but this book looks like it is already 20 years out of date. Anyone using box and arrow style models of mental states (eg, "correspondence") is well behind the times. The leading edge of psychiatry and psychology is mathematical, not narrative.

Looks decent enough, will give it a try. In that Amazon link, there is only Hardcover version. Would you please give me a link with paperback cover, as I feel it more comfortable while travelling rather than Hardcover.

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