The Synthetic Evolution of Concrete and Symbolic Thought

(tdaxp’s Note: This post is a first attempt to turn my series Liberal Education (I, II, III, IV) into something I can use for a class. It also uses some of my readings from Moshman’s book. While I am not sure if this will be used for Adolescent Psychology, the adolpsych prof likes the dialectic, so this post uses that perspective as well).

There are two leading paradigms for change: evolution by selection and the dialectic. Evolution by selection is the mechanical process that creates differences between successive generations of entities. Animals, states, and even ideas evolve because unfit ones are selected out of the population, while highly fit ones are selected for by reproducing themselves. On a larger scale, and especially with logical entities, Hegel’s dialectic holds true. Hegel postulated that an original idea, or “thesis,” is negated by a contradictory idea, or “antithesis,” until the thesis and the antithesis are combined in an idea composed of both old ideas: the synthesis.

This paper will combine the ideas of evolution and the dialectic to speculate on the future of thought. This essay will examine concrete thought as a thesis, abstract thought as the antithesis, and explore the identity of the probable synthesis. Evolution by selection will be shown to be a mechanism that inexorably draws thought closer to the synthesis. Along the way relevant research will be cited, as well as citation of Dr. .David Elkind’s All Grown Up And No Place To Go.

Originally, all humans were concrete thinkers. Concrete thought involves logical manipulations on the world as it really is. Concrete thought has been known as long as Aristotle (Elkind 27), and kicks in for children at about five years of age. The classic example of concrete thought is Aristotle’s proof that Socrates was mortal, shown in three steps

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Every step of this process is verifiable. The hypothesis “all men are mortal” can be logically induced from the observation that all people seem to age and eventually die. Socrates’ manhood is a given, but can be proven by whatever test one wishes. Even the conclusion can be verified in the real world, and indeed was when Socrates committed suicide under order on May 7, 399 BC. The mathematical analog to concrete thought is simple arithmetic.

Even though algebra has been known since its discovery by Al-Khwarizmi in AD 813, it’s logical match of formal operations was unknown until it was elucidated by Jean Piaget in the twentieth century. Formal operations is a style of logical thought that holds true independent of reality. Many adolescents develop the ability to think formally about age 13. From Moshman (9), a classic example of symbolic thought is:

Mice are bigger than dogs.
Dogs are bigger than elephants.
Therefore, mice are bigger than elephants

Interestingly, every step of this formal operation is logically false. A child can see a rat next to a dog, and know that rats are not bigger than dogs. A child can see a dog next to a horse, and know that dogs are not larger than horses. A child past the age of five can use concrete operations, and know the conclusion is true. But within the context of the problem, the conclusion is formally true.

The human mind is not just changeable; it constantly changes through life. Recent research by John Hibbing has examined the role of genetics in beliefs. Using twin studies, Dr. Hibbing has shown that genetic factors in beliefs do not appear until age twenty and increase after that. In other words, after the second decade of life environmental factor of belief recede dramatically and genetic factors take their place. Just as Elkind seens development as naturally leading a child from concrete to formal operations, empirical evidence suggests development leads just as naturally from learned to genetic beliefs.

Despite laying out this thesis and antithesis, Elkind has not given guideposts for the road to a synthesis. But by dropping down a level of analysis and seeing how thoughts thrive, this paper will.

The evolution of ideas was first seriously examined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins proposed the existence of “memes,” the ideological reflection of nucleic-acid-based genes. While the habitat of genes is always some physical locale on the planet Earth, memes find their niches in the minds of men. As with genes, memes are selected for by their environment and our ultimate judged on the degree to which they reproduce.

For instance, take the meme of Islamic suicide terrorism. Once it inculcates in a host person, its lifetime is probably short. The suicide terrorism meme has roughly the same lethality as AIDS. Yet the evolutionary success of suicide terrorism should be no more surprising than the evolutionary success of the AIDS virus. In the body, the HIV virus is capped with a head made of sugar that prevents the body’s immune system from quickly destroying it. After all, one can imagine the immune system thinking, sugar is good, so why attack these wonderful visitors? In the same way, the suicide terrorism meme is capped with a head made of the sugar of respect, honor, and dark-eyed virgins. Even though HIV and suicide terrorism both kill their host, they are able to reproduce often enough to make them evolutionarily fit.

Harm de Blij has shown the dramatic ways the global climate has changed since the emergence of man. Humanity’s inner world has changed at least as much. Given that Elkind says on page 36 that “Formal operations aid and abet [strong] attachments by enabling young people to idealize the person to whom they are attracted,” (36) and “Young people become very idealistic once they have attained the level of formal operational thought,”(50), one should be able to discover the emergence of formal thought by looking at the first documented evidence of idealism.

By this standard, formal thought appeared around 420 BC and spread like wildfire. The first formal thinker appears to have been Socrates, whose questioning about abstract questions such as goodness and godliness (for example, ) lead to his death. Shortly afterwards, the first idealized description of the afterlife appears in the Bible (2 Maccabees 7). Within a few centuries memes had evolved to display heartbreakingly beautiful pictures of the afterlife (“In my Father’s house are many mansions”, “There is a tree in the shadow of which a horseman can ride along for one hundred years without ever reaching the outer range of the shadow”) and the foundations of the modern world had been laid.

In a world where most of the population is starving and uneducated, though, formal operations remains the antithesis to the thesis of concrete thought. Nearly all formal or abstract memes competed for a small number of followers, with a concrete mutation spreading among the mass of people. Islam, which has far more concrete descriptions of paradise than Christianity, shows this memetic evolutionary trend.

From the emergence of formal operations to the mid nineteenth century, there was a relatively small population whose minds provided niches to abstract memes. The breakout occurred with the introduction of compulsory mass education. Public education was an extremely well fit meme, because it was the first abstract meme which was able able to develop new lands for abstract memes in general. Compulsory education was a pioneer for all the abstract memes that would follow after it.

However, with a wide segment of the public now able to think formally – even pessimists typically put the proportion at no less than half – growth opportunities for formal memes are once again limited. If half of the adult population can now think formally, this means that no more than a doubling of habitat could be achieved by converting all adults into formal thinkers. What’s more, while a formal thinker (and his memes) might have a huge advantage over others in a world mostly comprised of concrete thinkers, if half the population is thinking formally this advantage is greatly reduced.

The solution lies in biology. By synthesizing what is known about cognitive development with new insights supplied by genetic studies, it is possible to determine what evolutionarily fit memes of the future will look like. This will also describe the synthesis between concrete and formal thinking.

The first stage of logical thinking occurs from about five years to about eleven years, where a child thinks concrete based on environmental influences. The second stage, which Piaget called the “final stage” (Moshman 7),, is formal thinking based on environmental influences. The switch from concrete to formal thinking is a “negation” of the thesis into the synthesis. The “double negation” into synthesis takes the novel elements of both (concrete and formal thinking), reverses the rest (environmental influences), and shows that the third stage of cognitive development would be a mix of concrete and formal thinking based on genetic factors.

Gene-directed thinking would be qualitatively different than all that came before. Every system of thinking, from syllogism to predicate calculus, assumes the existence of a neutral objective reality. Never has thinking been optimized for the limitations and specializations of one’s genetics. Yet the literature supports such an evolution. “Rationality,” Moshman notes on page 16, “in its oldest, broadest, and deepest sense, is a matter of having good reasons for one’s beliefs and actions.” What could be a better reason than that some belief or bias is empirically more natural than some other?

Objectively one can see how gene-directed thinking is more fit than mere formal thinking among grown adults. As one ages genes play a larger and larger role in cognition, meaning that otherwise adapted formal memes that are unable to handle the transition will die as their niche changes. Meanwhile, memes evolved for such an environment will multiple and thrive.

The next stage of thinking, the next level of rationality, the third order of logic, the synthesis of concrete and abstract thought, is genetic thought. From an evolutionary perspective, there is no other way.

Racist tdaxp?

Over at Phatic Communion, CGW discussed his reaction to Muslim anti-cartoon protests. Because Curtis’s opinion was so different from Adam‘s, who he is normally quite similar to, I entered a conversation. Specifically, I mentioned that while many Christians were upset by a Rolling Stone cover.


Of course, the reason many Christians were bothered is simple: Racism.

Dan, please tell me how the Rolling Stone cover has lampooned Jesus. By offering a — gasp! — black Jesus?

Who woulda thunk it?


Well, that guy, obviously.

Questioning Moshman on Identity Development

It’s the busy season for adolescent psychology posts here at tdaxp. Elkind and Price were finished out, Moshman started (in a post since updated with even more!), and even a reaction paper was posted. Now a question set over David Moshman’s views on identity development.

On 81, Moshman writes that “Erikson noted the important correspondences of the adult stages to teh child stages with respect to relationships across the generations.” With the importance of family throughout Erikson’s stages of personality development, might “family” be considered a “base identity”? What other base identities are there? Culture? Work?

On 82, Moshman says “more briefly, Erikson’s view was that adolescent exploration of alternatives ideally results in… a commitment to ideals.” Isn’t this a normative judgment? Why not a commitment to individuals?

On 83, Moshman defines Marcia’s term “foreclosed individual” as someone with “clear commitments” that have been “internalized.” Is this a natural state of someone in a highly-connected world, who will be in contact with a large number of very fit memes?

On 84, Moshman introduces “identity achieved” as an introduction to “foreclosed individual,” because an achieved individual supposedly chose their identity while a foreclosed one did not. But constructivism teaches that the individual is an active participants in decision making. Likewise, early adolescents is surely an identity crisis for all. How then can the difference between achieved and foreclosed be meaningfully sustained, other than in a historical sense?

On page 90, Moshman lists the first stage of identity development as “establishing concrete self-other distinctions.” Yet Ortega y Gasset said “I am myself and my surroundings,” and the philosophical basis of that theory of identity goes back much farther (“no man is an island,” &c). How does Moshman harmonize his theory with this history of thought?

On 90 and 91, Moshman describes identity as “a theory of oneself,” and gives two aspects of theories: coherency and explanativeness. Yet he ignores predictiveness, which seems central to identity.

On page 97, Moshman lists the standard James Marcia domains of identity formation as career, sexuality, religion, and political identity. Why not family, especially given the importance of family seen on page 81?

On page 99, Moshman reviews the four identity statuses (achieved, moratorium, diffused, and foreclosed from page 85). What is the relation between an identity status to a Boydian “orientation state” or “stance”?

On page 100, Moshman quotes “dogmatic self-theorists” as one who strives “to defend against potential threats to their self-constructions. Individuals who utilize this protectionist approach to self-theorizing have been found to endorse authoritarian views, to possess rigid self-construct systems, and to be closed to novel information relevant to hard core values and beliefs.” Does this imply that those who use power-centric techniques to prevent annoying information are dogmatic self-theorists. For instance, is it likely that speech codes which prevent the flying of confederate flags in dormitories (as discussed in class) were devised by dogmatic self-theorists?

On page 105, Moshman quotes Pinney as saying “Growing up in a society where the mainstream culture may differ significantly in values and beliefs from their own culture of origin, [minority] youth face the task of achieving a satisfactory and satisfying integration of ethnic identity into a self-identity.” Is this an argument for increased integration (and thus deprecation) of ethnic identity? If differing cultures of origin deny members of smaller societies the ability to “start at the same place” as majorities, then wouldn’t the best solution be to melt those small cultures into one greater culture?

Questioning Moshman on Cognitive Development

Now that UNL’s Adolescent Psychology class is finished with David Elkind’s All Grown Up and No Place To Go (which was questioned twice here: I, II), our next book is Adolescent Psychological Development (2nd Edition. The book is written by UNL’s own David Moshman.


Our professor has done a good job going over Moshman’s concepts, so there’s only four questions for this week’s reading. Some information from this section will go into a short reaction paper based on my four-part series, Liberal Education (I, II, III, IV).

On page 7, Moshman writes that “cognitive changes, rather than being arbitrary and idiosyncratic, show a natural tendency to move in the direction of greater rationality.” How does Moshman square this with studies that shows greater genetic influence of beliefs after the age of 20?

On page 15, Moshman writes that “Cognitive development, according to Piaget, is the construction of increasingly sophisticated forms of logic, culminating in the formal operational logic of the adolescent.” On what grounds does Piaget beleive that formal logic is the culmination of cognitive development? Specifically, does he deny the existence of a third-order logic of humans?

On page 16, Mosham says that “Rationality, in its oldest, broadest, and deepest sense, is a matter of having good reasons for one’s beliefs and actions.” If “good” is defined as good for one’s mental or physical health, this impleis that beliefs which are logically sound but detrimental are not good. Doesn’t this imply the existence of a third-order logic which better approximates “rationality”?

From pages 17 to 23, Mosham describes both the dialectic and scientific reasoning as possible stages beyond second-order reasoning. But in both cases, all that is done is the introduction of postulates. This is hardly qualitatively different thinking of the sort that allows one to jump from concrete to logical thinking. Does this add anything new, or merely subtract from formal operations by introducing the constraining postulates?

Update: Questions for the next reading section, also on cognitive development:

On page 28, Moshman describes an experiment where children, adolescents, and young adults were given logical problems based on promises that the audience would view as true, neutral, or false. However, all of these ages are very much under the guidance of learned beliefs. How would the tests have turned out if the subjects were older, and the information went against genetic predispositions?

On pages 28-29, Moshman argues that all children naturally develop a constructivist theory of mind. If this is the true, then why was constructivism not the first psychological theory to be widely accepted?

On 31, Moshman says traditional research on epistemic cognition involved interviews based on justification for beliefs. Isn’t this just measuring linguistic and interpersonal intelligence — and not intrapersonal intelligence at all? That is, “high performing” subjects know what they “should” say and they know how to say it. Isn’t this quite different from metacognition?

On 33, Moshman writers “research does not support a categorical distinction between cultural groups in reasoning. Neither East Asians, Westerners, nor any other culturla groups has been shown to rely on a paritcular kind of reasoning to the exclusion of the other.” This seems to be a straw-man argument. The party of the brain that comprehend western characters and chinese characters are different, for instance, and this is shown by stroke survivors who lose the ability to use one but not the other. Wouldn’t the cululative effect of this mental exercises naturally produce different thinking patterns?

On page 37, Moshman notes that while individual scores for the card turning experiment are terrible, collective scores are quite high. What is the broader relation of Moshman’s to the work of Surowiecki (author of The Wisdom of Crowds)?

On page 44, Moshman lists rationality has constructed by the processes of reflection, coordination, and peer interaction. Yet is reflection really necessary? If instead of a cooperative exercise, Nora North and Simon South were playing some high-tempo game, which gave them coordination of experiences and peer interaction, wouldn’t they have rationally realized the “true” location of objections without reflection? Or is reflection defined so broadly that even reflection that occurs subconsciously count? If so, is this a useful definition?

On pages 45 and 46, Moshman says that asymmetric power relationships are more educative than symmetric power relationships. If this is true, wouldn’t schools do well be to structured around free-play and free-gossip, and keeping classroom time to a minimum?