In a recent article in nature, Johan J. Bolhuis and Clive D. L. Wynne asked “Can evolution explain how minds work?” (subscription needed) and were of the opinion that there are severe problems with comparative paradigms. They pointed out major problems with evolutionary interpretations of cognitive traits. In their view, this research was fraught with anthropocentrism, e.g. it was mostly focused on humans or seen from a human perspective, and it doesn’t take into account the problem of convergent evolution:
“Different species may have arrived at similar solutions to cognitive problems because they have experienced similar selection pressures, not because they are closely related. In other words, evolutionary convergence may be more important than common descent in accounting for similar cognitive outcomes in different animal groups” (Bolhuis & Wynne 2009).
In addition, we don’t know which selective pressures our ancestors faced in their environment. Cognitive traits also leave little to no traces in the fossil record. This means that we mainly have to guess which cognitive traits may have evolved in response to some presumed selection pressures.
Bolhuis and Wynne also hold that comparative researchers have “naïve evolutionary presuppositions” and hold that
“As long as researchers focus on identifying human-like behaviour in other animals, the job of classifying the cognition of different species will be forever tied up in thickets of arbitrary nomenclature that will not advance our understanding of the mechanisms of cognition.” (Bolhuis & Wynne 2009).
This argument is of course not new and can be found – in an even stronger form and on a more general level – in the critical writings of Noam Chomsky, Stephen Jay Gould, and maybe most vocally, Richard Lewontin. Lewontin even goes so far as to say that the only thing we know about the evolution of human cognition is precisely that it evolved. That’s it. (Lewontin 1998: 108). This is especially so with complicated cognitive traits like linguistic competence.
We don’t even know in how far language is an innate genetically specified ability and in how far it is only a by-product of other evolutionary changes and is shaped and specified by culture. What’s more, we can’t possibly know how hereditary mechanisms (both genetic and cultural) acted in our remote ancestor, and we don’t know anything about the survival advantage these presumed mechanisms may have had in the past. Lewontin draws the conclusion that “reconstructions of the evolutionary history and the causal mechanisms of linguistic competence […] are nothing more than a mixture of pure speculation and inventive stories.” (Lewontin 1998: 111).
He explicitly directs his criticism at proposals like that of Pinker & Bloom (1990) (see also this post) who argued that natural selection is the only force that can explain the evolution of such a ‘complex adaptive’ trait like language. But we can’t show how natural selection might have been at work in each of the unknown stages that were necessary for language to evolve. Consequently, Pinker & Bloom’s argument is flawed.
I think Lewontin’s argument applies to some of the sweeping ‘adaptationist’ evolutionary approaches to language and cognition. But I don’t think his 1998 critique really captures the state of the research today or even earlier. In the 2003 anthology ‘Language Evolution’ (Kirby & Christiansen 2003, see also this post) which pretty much presented the state of the field there were many researchers who had a substantial amount to say about the evolution of language without falling into the theoretical pitfalls Lewontin warned about. At the end of his article Michael Tomasello, for example, cautions that “I am afraid that I have no real evolutionary fairy tale with which to conclude.” But he still has to clarify what valuable implications his research has for a general account of the evolution of language and cognition and is able to spell out some of the cognitive mechanisms which had to evolve and in how far culture has been an important aspect in this respect (Tomasello 2003: 108f.). Similarly, Marc Hauser and W. Tecumseh Fitch voice similar criticism to that of Lewontin and Chomsky (which is not very surprising given that they co-authored two papers with the latter). However, they hold that the “comparative approach to language has been and will continue to be a powerful approach to understand both the evolution and current function of the language faculty.” (Hauser & Fitch 2003: 159). I completely agree with them, especially if we throw developmental science into the mix. By looking at non-human primates we are able to “isolate and study those components of the language faculty inherited from our non-human ancestors” (Hauser & Fitch 2002: 159). What is more, comparative research can also give us insight into possible advantages and selection pressures that led to the evolution of features. If we find similar traits and neural subsystems in other primates it is reasonable to assume that these are homologous and due to our shared evolutionary history. If on the other hand, other primates don’t have these traits but other species, e.g. songbirds, jays, parrots or deer, have them, they may be analogous and due to similar environmental or social selection pressures. If we carefully compare many different species across different taxa we get an increasingly better picture of the evolution of cognition in humans and other species.
But a broad survey of the field shows that this is already done as Sara Shettleworth (2009a) points out. Consequently, Bolhuis and Wynne’s criticism falls apart if we actually look at the field they are criticising and it is more as if they are flogging a dead horse (2009b). But we can see that Tomasello, Hauser, Fitch, Bolhuis, Wynne and Shettleworth all think that comparative cognition can give us important insights into the evolution of the organisms they study and compare. But it has to be done carefully and critically and within a throroughly worked out theoretical and methodological framework. In light of this, much of Lewontin’s criticisms seem to be misguided or at least do not really apply anymore. But does this really mean that there are no real general problems with evolutionary inquiries into the evolution of cognition?
In my next post I will address the additional criticisms Lewontin launches at the study of the evolution of cognition.
Bolhuis, Johan and Clive D. L. Wynne (2009):Can evolution explain how minds work?' Nature 458: 832–833.
Hauser, M. D. & Fitch, W. T. (2003). What are the uniquely human components of the language faculty? In: Language Evolution: The State of the Art. Ed. by Christensen, M. & S. Kirby) pp. 158-181. Oxford: Oxford Unviersity Press.
Pinker, Steven & Paul Bloom (1990): “Natural Language and Natural Selection.” In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4: 707-726.
Shettleworth, S. J. (2009a). The evolution of comparative cognition: Is the snark still a boojum? In: Behavioural Processes , 80, 210-217.
Shettleworth, Sara J. (2009b). Cognition: theories of mind in animals and humans. In: Nature 459: 506.
Tomasello, M. (2003). On the different origins of symbols and grammar. In Language Evolution: The State of the Art. Ed by. M. Christiansen & S. Kirby. Oxford: Oxford University Press.