Notes on "The Psychological Foundations of Culture" by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides

The final third of the first weeks’ reading assignment is the astoundingly-popular work, “The Psychological Foundations of Culture.” Available online (with different page numbers), this work propelled the husband-and-wife duo of John and Leda to academic superstardom by attacking a (partially straw-man) Standard Social Science Model and arguing for universal genetic factors as a major influence on human psychology and anthropology. Most interesting for me was the attack on “learning” throughout the article, which becomes explicit only at the end

We expect that the concept of learning will eventually disappear as cognitive psychologists and other researchers make progress in determining the actual causal sequences by which the functional business of the mind is transacted. (Tooby and Cosmides 123)

T&C also strongly support the information-processing model — a model already used by John Boyd’s OODA Loop.

The other readings for this week were Alford’s and Hibbing’s The Origin of Politics: An Evolutionary Theory of Political Behavior (article, notes) and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate (amazon, notes).

Darwin took an equally radical step toward uniting the mental and physical worlds, by showing how the mental world — whatever it might be composed of — arguable owed its complex organization to the same process of natural selection that explained the physical organization of living things. 20

To break this seamless matrix of causation — to attempt to dismember the individual into “biological” versus “nonbiological” aspects — is to embrace and perpetuate an ancient dualism endemic to the Western cultural tradition: material/spiritual, body/mind, physical/mental, natural/human, animal/human, biological/social, biological/cultural. 21

To many scholarly communities, conceptual unification became an enemy, and the relevance of other fields a menace to their freedom to interpret human reality in any way those chose. 21

For Lowie, “the principles of psychology are as incapable of accounting for the phenomena of culture as is gravitation to account for architectural styles,” and “culture is a thing sui generis which can be explained only in terms of itself — omnis cultura ex cultura.” 22

… the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM): the consensus view of the nature of social and cultural phenomena that has served for a century as the intellectual framework for the organization of psychology and the social sciences and the intellectual justification for their claims of autonomy from the rest of science. 23

Instead, human culture and social behavior is richly variable because it is generated bya n incredibly intricate, contingent set of functional programs that use and process information from the world, including information that is provided both intentionally and unintentionally by other human beings. 24

Infants everywhere are born the same and have the same development potential, evolved psychology or biological endowment — a principle traditionally known as the psychic unity of humankind. 25

For example, it is true that infants are everywhere the same. Genetic differences are superficial. 33

For example, the fact that same aspect of adult mental organization is absent at birth has no bearing on whether it is part of our evolved architecture. 33

Thus, to support the SSSM was to oppose racism and sexism and to challenge the SSSM was, intentionally or not, to lend suport to racism, sexism and, more generally (an SSSM way of defining the problem), “biological determinism.” 35

Although the adaptionist inquiry into our universal, inherited, species-typical design is quite distinct from the behavior genetics question about which differences between individuals or sets of individuals are caused by differences in their genes, the panspecific nativism typical of adaptionist evolutionary biology and the idiotypic nativism of behavior genetics became confused with each other. 35

Selection in combination with sexual recombination tends to enforce uniformity in adaptions, whether physiological or psychological, especially in long-lived species with an open population structure such as humans. 38 (really? so no genetic polymorphism???)

At present, we are decades away from having a good model of the human mind, and this is attributable in no small measure to a misguided antinativism that has, for many, turned from being a moral stance into a tired way of defending a stagnated and sterile intellectual status quo. 40

In advance of any data, the Standard Model defined for psychology the general character of the mechanisms that it was supposed to find (general-purpose, content-independent ones), its most important focus (learning), and how it would interpret the data it found (no matter what the outcome, the origin of content was to be located externally — for example, in the knowably complex unobserved prior history of the individual — and not “internally” in the mind of the organism. 41

The single most far-reaching consequence of the Standard Social Science Model has been to intellectually divorce the social sciences form the natural sciences, with the result that they cannot speak to each other about much of substance. 48

An organism is a self-reproducing machine. 50

Consequently, one of the two outcomes usually ensues: (1) the frequency of a design will drop to zero — i.e., go extinct (a case of negative feedback): or (2) a design will outreproduce and thereby replace all alternative designs in the population (a case of positive feedback). 51 (what is “usually” in the context of genotypic polymorphism?)

But despite the fact that chance plays some role in evolution, organisms are not primarily chance agglomerations of stray properties. To the extent that a feature has a significant effect on reproduction, selection will act on it. 52

Individual organisms are best thought of as adaption-executers rather than fitness-maximizers. 54

In fact, eyes (light-receptive organs) have evolved independently over 40 times in the history of animal life from eyeless ancestral forms. 56-57

The eye and the rest of the visual system perform no mechanism or chemical service for the body: it is an information-processing adaption. 58

The explanation for any specific concomitant or spandrel is, therefore, the identification of the adaption or adaptions to which it is coupled, together with the reason why it is coupled. For example, bones are adaptions, but the fact that they are white is an incidental by-product. 63

These relationships can be described independently of their physical instantiation in any particular computer or organism, and can be described with precision. Thus, an information-processing program, whether in an organism or in a computer, is a set of invariant relationships between informational inputs and “behavioral” outputs. 66

Other things being equal, the more closely psychological mechanisms reliably produce behavior that conforms to Hamilton’s rule, the more strongly they will be selected for. 67 (compare to Hibbing and Alford‘s defense of multi-level selection)

For example, mental states, such as behavioral intentions and emotions, cannot be directly observed. But if there is a reliable correlation over evolutionary time between the movement of human facial muscles and emotional state or behavioral intentions, then specialized mehcanisms can evolve that infer a person’s mental state from the movement of that person’s facial muscles. 69-70

Ethnobiologists and cognitive anthropologists such as Atran and Berlin have shown that the principles humans spontaneously use in categorizing plants and animals reflect certain aspects of this enduring structure, and are the same cross-culturally as well. 70-71

For example, contrary to the Piagetian notion that infants must “learn” the object concept, recent research has shown that (at least) as early as 10 weeks — an age at which the visual system has only just matured — infants already have a sensorily-integrated concept of objects as entities that are continuous in space and time, solid (two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time), rigid, bounded, cohesive, and move as a unit. 71 (but… Piaget’s constructivism assumes a “mind” which mere behaviorism or interactionism does not. The authors are unfair to Piaget later on, too)

In general, being a member of a natural kind carries more inferential weight that being perceptually similar. 71

Many statistical and structural relationships that endured across human evolution were “detected” by natural selection, which designed corresponding computational machinery that is specialized to use these regularities to generate knowledge and decisions that would have been adaptive in the EEA. 72

The following are five structured components that can be fit together [either 1,2,3,4,5 or 3,2,1,4,5] in such [an evolutionary] analysis… an adaptive target: a description of what counts as a biologically successful outcome in a given situation… background conditions: a description of the recurrent structure of the ancestral world that is relevant to the adaptive problem… a design: a description of the articulated organization of recurrent featured in the organism that together comprise the adaption or suspected adaption… a performance examination: a description of what happens when the proposed adaptions mechanistically interact with the world… a performance evaluation: a description or analysis of how well (or how poorly) the design, under circumstances paralleling ancestral conditions, managed to produce the adaptive target (the set of biologically successful outcomes). 73-74

As Mayr put it, summarizing the historical record in response to accusations that adaptionist research was simply post hoc storytelling: “The adaptionist question, ‘What is the function or given structure or organ?’ has been for centuries the basis for every advance in physiology.” 77

But it is only an adaptionist analysis that predicts and explains why the impact of this variability is so often limited in its scope to micro-level biochemical variation, instead of introducing substantial individuating design differences. 79

For social scientists, of course, this recognition requires a radical change in practice: Every “environmentalist” explanation about the influence of a given part of the environment on humans will — if it is to be considered coherent — need to be accompanied by a specific ‘nativist’ hypothesis about the evolved developmental and psychological mechanisms that forge the relationship between the environmental input the hypothesized psychological output. 87

No instance of anything is intrinsically (much less exclusively) either ‘general’ or ‘particular’ — these are simply different levels at which any system of categorization encounters the same world. 88 (what about the zero/one/infinity rule in software design, cosmology, etc?)

Moreover, children typically “explain” behavior as the confluence of beliefs and desires (e.g. Why has Mary gone to the water fountain? Because she has a desire for water (i.e., she is thirsty) and she believes that water can be found at the water fountain). Such inferences appear to be generated by a domain-specific cognitive system that is sometimes called a “theory of mind” module. 90

The cognitive revolution, with its emphasis on formal analysis, made clear that theories needed to be made causally explicit to be meaningful, and it supplied psychologists with a far more precise language and set of tools for analyzing and investigating complexly contingent, information-responsive systems. 93

In fact, plasticity (e.g. variability) tends to be injurious everywhere in the architecture except where it is guided by well-designed regulatory mechanisms that improve outcomes or at least do not harm. It would be particularly damaging if these regulatory mechanisms were themselves capriciously “plastic,” instead of rigidly retaining those computational methods that produce advantageous responses to changing conditions. 101

Combinatorial explosion is the term for the fact that with each new degree of freedom added to a system, or with each new dimension of potential variation added, or with each new successive choice in chain of decisions, the total number of alternative possibilities faced by a computational system grows with devastating complexity… Which leads to the best outcome? Or, leaving aside optimality as a hopelessly Utopian luxury in an era of diminished expectations, which sequences are nonfatal? [This problem is also called the] fame problem… poverty of stimuli… referential ambiguity… need for constraints on induction… underdetermines the interpretation 102-103

Some rules for evaluation hypotheses by the evolutionary criterion are as follows. 1. Obviously, at a minimum, a candidate architecture must be able to perform all of the tasks and subtasks necessary for it to reproduce… a hypothesis should not entail an architecture that is substantially inferior at promoting its own propagation (its inclusive fitness) replace an architecture that was better designed to promote fitness under ancestral conditions… A candidate architecture should not require the world to be other than it really is. For example, models of grammar acquisition that assume that adults standardly correct their children’s grammatical errors do not meet this condition… An architecture that was architecture that was completely open to manipulation by others, without any tendency whatsoever to modify or resist exploitative or damaging social input, would be strongly selected against… a candidate theory should not invoke hypotheses that require assumptions about the coordinated actions of others (or any part of the environment) unless it explains how such coordination reliably came about during the Pleistocene hunter-gatherer life…5. A candidate model must not propose the existence of complex capacities in the human psychological architecture unless these capacities solve or solved adaptive (design-propagative) problems for the individual.

The more a system initially “knows” about the world and its persistent characteristics, and the more evolutionarily proven “skills” it starts out with, the more it can learn, the more problems it can solve, the more it can accomplish. 113

Therefore, what is special about the human mind is not that it gave up “instinct” in order to become flexible, but that it proliferated “instincts”-that is, content-specific problem-solving specializations which allowed an expanding role for psychological mechanisms that are (relatively) more function-general. 113

In contrast, the Standard Model “do what your parents did” concept of culture is not a principle that can explain much about why cultural elements change, where one new one comes from, why they spread, or why certain complex patterns (e.g. pastoralist commonalities) recur in widely separated cultures. 116 (really? or, the author thinks that memetic mutations, crossover, etc are too slow?)

Rather than calling this class of representations “transmitted” culture, we prefer terms such as reconstructed culture, adopted culture, or epidemiological culture. 118

The more widely shared an elemtn is, the more people are included to call it “cultural,” but there is no natural dividing point along a continuum of something shared between two individuals to something shared through inferential reconstruction by the entire human species… Within groups, representations occur with all kinds of different frequencies, from beliefs passed across generations by unique dyads, such as shamanistic knowledge or mother-daughter advice, to beliefs shared by most or all members of a group. 120

…it is probably more accurate to think of humanity as a single interacting population tied together by sequences of reconstructive inference than as a collection of discrete groups with separate bounded “cultures.” 121

Second, with the fall of content-independent learning, the socially constructed wall that separates psychology and anthropology (as well as other fields) will disappear. 121 (shades of Marx or Wilson? hmm…)

One thought on “Notes on "The Psychological Foundations of Culture" by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides”

  1. ” arguing for universal genetic factors as a major influence on human psychology and anthropology”

    How did the psychologists and anthropologists think that humans somehow escaped epigenetic rules in the first place ?

    Divine favor ?

    Ah, the curse of Franz Boas lives on…..

  2. Mark,

    The most coherent explanation is that sometime over the past two million years, the human brain evolved a general computation component — a “neural network” — possible as a side-effect of increased brain size. The neural network proved more adaptive than nearly all instincts, and so evolution selected against special-purpose modules and towards the domain-free blank slate.

    Many connectionists take this argument very far, arguing that even abilities such as “reach” are the result of neural networking, and not as part of a development programming. (I was going to mention this in my paper on the State and OODA models [1], but had to drop it for length).

    A mystery in all of this is the shrinking of the human brain over the past 15 thousand years [2]. A strong connectionist would argue that as instinctual models are discarded, those brain portions decrease in size and allow the skull to shrink. A strong modularist, on the other hand, argues that the agricultural revolution allowed a lot of cognitive work to be offloaded to other specialists (how do I build a house? I ask a house-building), allowing in a reduction for general-purpose cognitive ability and a greater reliance on the interaction of modules in society – the “evoked culture” that combines psychology and anthropology.

    PS: Could you explain the Franz Boas comment? Just glancing at wikipedia [2] he'd seem to fit in with the current genetic factorists

    “One of his most important books, The Mind of Primitive Man (published in 1911), he integrated these various concerns and established a program that would dominate American anthropology for the next fifteen years. In this study he established that in any given population, biology, language, material and symbolic culture, are autonomous; that each is an equally important dimension of human nature, but that no one of these dimensions is reducible to another.”


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