#209 Cecilia Heyes: Cultural Evolutionary Psychology, Imitation, And Mindreading



hello everybody welcome to a new episode of the dissenter I'm your host Ricardo Lopez and today I'm joined by dr. Cecilia Hayes she is a professor of psychology and senior research fellow in theoretical life science at All Souls College University of Oxford she was trained as an experimental psychologist at University College London has a Harkness fellow in the United States she studied evolutionary epistemology with Donald T Campbell and philosophy of mind with Daniel Dennett she's done experimental work initially in animal cognition and later in cognitive neuroscience and more recently her group developed and tested and have an associative account of the origins of imitation and the mirror neuron system she is also the author of the book which we're going to focus the most on today which is called cognitive gadgets the cultural evolution of thinking so dr. Hayes thank you a lot for taking the time to come on the show it's a real pleasure to everyone thank you I'm delighted to be here okay great so I mean I've been having a lot of evolutionary psychologists on the show and I've also where doctors Robert Boyd and Peter Richardson and it's very interesting to everyone because in your book you talk about a lot a lot about high-church evolutionary psychology and you refer to the work of leda cosmides john tooby Steven Pinker and others and also what we could call cultural evolutionary theory I guess that you focus mostly on the california school of cultural evolution right headed by dr. Boyd Richardson Eric and others so I guess that the first question would be when you look at evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary what parts of the knowledge that come from that comes from there you have opted in your work and what are the assumptions that people making those disciplines that you tend to reject okay first of all high church or classic evolutionary psychology I'm a great admirer of the founding work in that field in particular the way that ladies later cosmides and john tooby brought together i think for the first time evolutionary analysis with the computational way of thinking about the mind thinking about the mind as like a computer as like the software running on the brain so prior to that there had been sociobiology and other kinds of behavioral biology that had you know sort of interested themselves in psychology but the only psychology they used was sort of everyday folk psychology and cosmides and to be said for the first time look there there's a better kind of psychology out there which has been developed through empirical research that's what we need to splice together with evolutionary analysis in order to understand the evolution of the human mind I think that was a key insight I think it's kind of the computationalism the way of viewing the mind is like software as kind of drained out of the evolutionary psychology to some degree a lot of focus on mating preferences sexual behavior in general but behavior rather than the software which is controlling the behavior but nonetheless I've taken from high-church evolutionary psychology the mind construed our software as the explanatory target for evolutionary analysis that's what we need to explain where I disagree with them about it is the idea that you can you can do this just with reference to genes so I think evolutionary psychology is deeply and unashamedly nativist it thinks that you know this there's programs for the development of ways of thinking which we inherit in our genes and I can understand why smart people thought that 25 years ago if you think about the evidence they had available then it was a pretty good bet but I think the evidence which has come in in the last 25 years suggests that natural selection operating on genes has not been the principal architect of the human mind so one option would be give up on evolutionary analysis of the human mind but there's another option available which comes from cultural evolutionary theory and yes I am thinking of the California school led by Rob Boyd and Pete Richardson and now they're former students who have become distinguished contributors in their own right and they are using evolutionary theory in the cultural domain so that the claim there is that there is a fundamental variation and selective retention algorithm a Darwinian kind of process operating but it's not sorting and sifting genetic variants it's sorting and sifting cultural variants so that's what I see is the strength of cultural evolutionary theory which can be combined very powerfully with the computational view of the mind for the moment my quibble with cultural evolutionary theory is that it tends to it does a lot of great modeling work that modeling work tends to idealize over psychological questions tends to not get into really how the minds working when we're learning things from others for example and insofar as it gets into psychology at all it buys the high church evolutionary psychology story that you know fundamentally the way that we think is programmed in the genes so I want to take the good bits from both the mind construed as software from evolutionary psychology the idea that you can have cultural evolution from cultural evolutionary theory yes and that's very interesting because in my interviews with doctors Boyd enrichers and I really got that sense that whenever they try to explain where things come from basically how we acquire culture sorry how we transmit culture to one another they resort very easily to explanations based on some sort of genetic machinery or something that is transmitted via genes between people like for example they talk about certain biases that we have when transmitting and acquiring information for example model model based biases frequency dependent biases content-based biases and it seems that all of those things they are talking about are already programmed into our minds and then they start from there they built from them from there up to perhaps I don't know sometimes V again theoretical approaches all certain traditions be spread between people and turn into social norms sometimes and things like that so basically at the core of it cultural evolutionary theory theory as it is approached by the California School of thinking in this case at its core it's a form of evolutionary psychology really I think that's right I do all as you say all of those learning biases they assume that we genetically inherit the propensity to show those biases and perhaps that we genetically inherit the potential to engage in sir – ality social learning at all methods of acquiring information through observation and interaction with others as well as the biases on those processes so in a way I want to I want to encourage cultural evolutionary psychologists to be more thoroughgoing in a sense to be more ambitious to say you know you you can apply the kind of cultural evolutionary analysis that you're using not just to you know change over time in beliefs and technology and practices it can be applied to the mental machinery which enables us to learn from others beliefs and ideas and practices technology so that's the distinction in your book that you make between Greece and Mills that is perhaps the cultural evolutionary theorists are more focused on trying to explain beliefs and skills instead of coming up with cultural explanations for the evolution of certain cognitive mechanisms that it might be the case that they are the results of cultural processes exactly so it seems to me that they assume that the mills of the mind the cognitive processes the ways of thinking are genetically inherited and they're just looking at how the operation of those mills can allow grist beliefs practices technology to change sometimes in an adaptive way across cultural generations so that's the gristmills distinction it's not it's not a perfect metaphor I mean I got the metaphor from Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century he had this metaphor of the mind as consisting of you know Mills which is somehow the operations grist is what you think as opposed to how you think I think it's a not bad first approximation for just point out the extension of cultural evolutionary theory that I think is possible and promising mm-hmm so let's get a little bit more into the nitty-gritty here because another very big topic that you explore in their book has to do with modularity of mind because I guess that evolutionary psychologists assume they have a vision of massive modularity of mind in in terms of the mind being composed by several specialized mechanisms that deal with specific kinds of evolutionarily relevant information and that give us outputs particularly in terms of behavior to try to solve those same problems that are presented to us evolutionarily speaking and they don't like that much to talk about domain general modules they assume that the mind is simply different a lot of different specific modules that are as they call them domain-specific and in your in your book I guess that many of the ways you try to explain how things like and we're going to talk about that later imitation and mind-reading arise in our minds are mostly the product of domain general mechanisms so what would you like to say about that I mean the division that evolutionary psychologists have and perhaps the relationship between domain specific and domain general modules okay I think I certainly do emphasize domain general mental processes much more than the high church evolutionary psychologists but um like them I am suggesting that what makes humans human minds different from those of other animals is that we have a set of domains cific cognitive processes but whereas they would say well those domain-specific cognitive processes have been produced by natural selection operating on jeans I say those domain-specific cognitive processes are produced in the course of childhood through social interaction and they get better at doing their jobs they get more adaptive over generations through cultural evolution so I'm I'm casting the domain-general processes as partly the the cranes and other kinds of heavy machinery that does the construction process so in order to build a whole new way of thinking for example a whole new way of thinking about other agents to think about other agents as individuals that have thoughts and feelings beliefs and desires in order to build the capacity to do that we need lots of interaction with other people to get ideas from them and to get ways of thinking about others but we also need kind of machinery on board to construct a new way of thinking and I see that machinery that does the construction within childhood has been domain-general machinery it's capable like cranes and concrete mixers those are capable of building a variety of different sorts of buildings exactly what kind of building they construct depends on architects and within this metaphor it depends on the social environment that you live in as to what kind of new way of thinking is constructed using this general purpose machinery mm-hmm so in terms of modularity of mind is it the case that you've also criticized the approach by evolutionary psychologists because it seems that at least until now that it's not been really possible for us to pin down precisely quetions in the brain or neural pathways that correspond to which of the specific modules that evolutionary psychologists have been identifying I I don't see the lack of discrete neural centers as a particular problem I think a claim about modularity or in my mind an interesting modularity claim is about the kinds of computations which are used it's kind of a claim about the software how the software operates and you can get clues about how software operates by looking at the brain but and I think there was early on an idea and Jerry Fodor may have done something to promote this idea that somehow in order for there to be a module in good standing they needed to be a part of the brain that did it was never entirely clear why neural localization anatomical localization had to go along with computational distinctiveness it being a special way of thinking so I don't see the the brain data as having been especially a problem for classical evolutionary psychology um I see it more as just the the evidence suggests what I call wealth of the stimulus that there's a huge amount of variation across cultures across points in development across children who grow up in different socio-economic conditions within a culture and so on there's a huge amount of variation in how they think and that variation correlates with the social environment in which they're growing up so that makes a prima facie case for the differences are due to the social environment rather than the potential to develop these ways of thinking being genetic heritage mm-hmm so you know I've also asked you about that because I've interviewed dr. cosmides and she told me about how she was very frustrated that Jerry father put forth that idea about encapsulated the modules in this case and then later I talked with dr. Patricia Churchland and I mean she made that very criticism that it was inner understanding modularity of mind Vivint old any water at all because we weren't able to pin down precisely patient's in the brain for each specific module but dr. cosmides in my interview with ER said the same thing that you just told us that basically we don't need that we would just need to have perhaps different parts of the brain act integrated into producing a specific cognitive or mental mechanism yeah I'm very much on Later side in this although I find Churchland eliminative ISM about mental as it were you know there's sort of the prediction that it's only a matter of time before scientists stop talking about the mind altogether you know it's all down to the brain and even the prediction that that will be true of us all in everyday life we'll stop talking about beliefs and desires and thoughts and feelings and all of those kinds of things I find it exhilarating to read about I find it completely implausible I think that there's genuine value in having even if you're a good materialist who doesn't think there's any spooky stuff as Pat calls it there any any sort of dualism she'll say that's a belief in spooky stuff I agree with a fact dualism a belief in spooky stuff but you don't have to believe in spooky stuff to think that there's value in having a level of abstraction of which you characterized the way the brain operates which acts as a bridge but between our everyday life understanding of ourselves than other people and our understanding of how the brain operates from neuroscience so I think that intermediate level of description is really important and that neuroscience can inform that but that it should be enslaved by just because there isn't a bit of the brain that does it doesn't mean it isn't a real entity and a useful entity in science mm-hmm you know that's very interesting because I've also went dr. Alexander Rosenberg on the show and these are very extreme what you could call perhaps eliminative least reductionist in the sense that he doesn't believe in beliefs and he says that people don't even think in the way that we think about thinking let's say it's a bit complicated but in any way whenever I think about that I think that perhaps we if we followed down that route then we would eventually be led back to skineri and behaviorism or something like that because if what happens in the mind doesn't matter I mean of course those people are taking into account what happens inside the brain and Skinner perhaps also they didn't care about that but anyway we would be left with that right yes and I certainly wouldn't welcome that although many people I mean because you asked about domain-general cognitive processes and I happen to believe that associative learning is one of the really valuable domain general cognitive resources and that makes some people think that I'm a Canarian which doesn't follow at all so I I also wouldn't wouldn't welcome that kind of transformation back to just neuroscience and ask an Arian approach I think would be a real step back but you know Alex Rosenberg Pat Churchill and their philosophers that's what we want from philosophers too to think the unthinkable to some degree it doesn't mean that we need to agree with them but it's somehow it's always I think valuable to reflect on these things and their work I think has helped to cut folk psychology in context to make so that psychologists like later cosmides and me and I think most cognitive scientists think there is value in having an intermediate level of explanation between brain talk and folk psychology it's not that we want the whole of scientific psychology to be about beliefs and desires and I think the work of eliminate Avista philosophers has made clear why it's not a good idea to try and Center the whole of scientific psychology on beliefs and desires that we need another more subtle intermediate level of explanation none of the computer software style yeah right so before we get into specific examples like the one of imitation and mind-reading or a theory of mind as it's also known I would like to ask you to what extent do you think that cultural influences or social influences that might be on the basis of the development of these cognitive mechanisms are deterministic and I would like to ask you about that because I remember that I talked with dr. Robert McCauley that is one of the founders of the field of the cognitive science of religion and at a certain point we were referring to certain experiments that people did with people from other cultures where for example they have a set of names for different colors or they orient themselves in space differently than we do in Western society instead of using left and right and front and back they use for example the cardinal points you know and at a certain point I refer to the fact that in many of those situations it seems to me that if we retrain people to use other sorts of spatial orientation or – or if we provide them with more words to describe colors or to identify colors then they are able to pick up on that very quickly it seems to me so do you think that that's a good way of thinking about things that perhaps if people are exposed to different cultural cognitive frame works they are able to pick up on them fairly easily or that they go through development and because they have been exposed to a certain culture that it in some way is deterministic and it's hard for them to acquire new cognitive tools I think certainly a core prediction of my cognitive gadgets approach is that our minds are agile they're flexible they're highly plastic and that's not to say it's without limit so if you learn something in infancy and it's a fundamental feature of for example the way in which you engage with other people then there it's likely to be you know a bit tricky to shift by later learning it's got deeply what Bill Wimsatt calls generatively entrenched you've built a whole bunch of other things on top of it so if you now try and pull this brick out from underneath you create chaos in things that develop subsequently and were built on top of it so I think there can be that kind of phenomenon which can make people resistant to relearning but yes compared with high church or standard evolutionary psychology cultural evolutionary psychology suggests no not deterministic you know we are we root Ain flexibility into adult life mm-hmm and that's interesting because that also clashes with the idea of critical periods of acquiring certain cognitive traits or mechanisms right yes I think it does I mean it doesn't necessarily conflict with critical periods for the development of all psychological attributes it it conflicts with the idea of critical periods for the development of distinctively human cognitive mechanisms so the mechanisms which are you know present in adult humans and either absent in other animals or whether their own there's only a trace of them in other animals so you know those distinctively human cognitive mechanisms as I call it yeah one wouldn't expect critical periods for their development certainly not critical periods as classically construed like the genes open a window for some experience to be had if you get the experience during that period then there'll be normal development of the attribute if you don't then you know kind of your development is screwed up forever that could in principle happen for other domain-general cognitive processes that we share with other animals you know my view doesn't really say anything about that but it says no no critical periods for distinctively human cognitive processes mm-hmm okay so now let's get into a couple of examples let's start with imitation because raps talking about specific examples it's easier for people to understand what we're talking about here so starting with imitation so it seems that the reason why people for a long time believed and still believed that imitation is an innate cognitive trait that humans have particularly over imitation right because it seems that there are other species that also are able to imitate their current specifics at least to a certain extent but that it was mostly based on the work by Andrew meltzoff and in a very few number of studies I think that they involved mainly tongue protrusion and things like that so could you tell us where that came from and perhaps what are the main reasons why it might be wrong okay so I think until the late 1970s there was pretty much a consensus that the development of imitation meaning specifically the capacity to copy the way in which parts of the body move relative to one another so you know if I raise an eyebrow then that's a movement of my eyebrow relative to the rest of my face relative to my eyes or whatever you know if I if I if I close my fingers into a fist that's a movement relative you know of the fingers relative to each other into the palm this has always been a slightly mysterious capacity in humans not so much hand movements because we can see ourselves perform hand movements but feels like facial expressions and whole body movements how do I know when I'm doing the same thing as I saw you do because after all when I raise my eyebrow I just get a bit more light into that I when I see you raise an eyebrow I see this little arc move on a disc those two things don't have anything in common visually so how would I even know if I was being successful in copying you so always a bit of a mystery as to how we could do that thought to be very important in human evolution and human development up until the late 1970s people thought well this is this is something that we learn to do predominantly we learn it through social interaction Jean Piaget was more or less saying that there might have been some inborn preparation to learn a lot of the work was done in the course of development through social interaction then a young Andy meltzoff makes this striking discovery takes a whole bunch of newborn babies and uses a really clever method to test whether they can copy facial expression and seems to find evidence that these newborns can copy a whole range of facial expressions they can copy an adult stick out their tongue an adult opening their mouths and a dolt for treating their lips and he argues well so there must be an instinct to imitate these newborns they haven't had a chance to learn how to do it through interaction with other people it can't just be a reflex because it's not just one action they can copy it's a whole range and this really revolutionized people's understandings of imitation and there was a fair amount of thinking well you know if there's an instantly imitation there might be instincts for all kinds of other things so in a way this also paved the way for evolutionary psychology which sort of came online ten years later fifteen years later but right for the very beginning there were people who tried to replicate these results and had difficulty Andy meltzoff own lab replicated it repeatedly there were other labs that managed to replicate it so this was all a bit a bit unsatisfactory and it wasn't replicable or was it not some people suggested it's all kind of an artifact connected with tongue protrusion that when you stick your tongue out at a baby it makes the baby excited and what babies happen to do when they're excited is stick their tongues out and so it wasn't exactly that the babies were looking at the tongue protrusion and specifically matching that action it just happened that an excited response looked like the stimulus in this particular case but so years of uncertainty and then a couple of years ago a group in Brisbane did a fantastic study they tested a hundred babies this is a sample of unprecedented size they tested for every action that's ever been tested in newborns and they used this great method introduced by Andy meltzoff and they found no evidence for imitation of anything but tongue protrusion they weren't even sure they got evidence of imitation of tongue protrusion so I think most people without a dog in the fight believe that this settles a question which has been rumbling for decades and it settles it in the negative that we we should go back to where we were in 1977 when we assumed that the capacity to imitate was essentially a developmental achievement something which was learned right and other things that you talked about in your book are also the fact that imitation can be enhanced abolished or reversed by novel experiences in this case sensory motor experiences and you also refer to certain cases of counter imitation training so I mean it can also happen that for example if we are trained to we metate a robot let's say that people can also learn to do that and if we are put in a situation where we are instructed to to perform one kind of action and the other person is doing another sort of action then there's that's where we get counter imitation training because emit what we were trying to imitate in that person sort of gets abolished in the sense because we are performing a different sort of action exactly and I think the the little story I told you about you know the fate of neonatal imitation there's a broad consensus that that puts us back to the point where we should assume that the capacity to imitate is learned my group has a very specific theory of how we learn to imitate and we've done lots of experiments testing the predictions of that theory and essentially the predictions of that theory is that it will be possible just as readily to copy a robot as to copy a human we should be just as able to counter imitate to systematically do the opposite as to copy under the right learning conditions so essentially we put adults into circumstances where they relearn and after the relearning they are fluently counter copying or they are fluently copying robots so it very much relates to what you were asking about determinism and flexibility in adulthood we're showing that even adults can relearn their proclivity to imitate mm-hmm so there are really certain kinds of behaviorist mechanisms operating near perhaps not skineri and behaviorist but other kinds of associative learning and sequence learning and things like that yes certainly associative learning the formation of excitatory and inhibitory links between visual and motor or tactile representations of action I mean just just a little bit of history connected to the skin' aryan issue i mean my reading of the history here is that the idea of associative learning was developed by the British in persists Locke and Hume and so on more than three hundred years ago and had been developed by philosophers and then began to be developed by experimental psychologists Experimental Psychology came online at the end of the 19th century then there was this brief peer behaviorism what it was like associationism was taken over by the behaviorists behaviorism died association ISM went on developing getting more and more refined the theory of associative learning but somehow people associate associative learning with this brief behaviorist period in its history yeah exactly so but I would like to ask you now because these came to my mind while we were talking about imitation and other things that I mean there there are different people that come up with different approaches to try to determine that some sort of human behavior is innate and they have several different criteria for example if it had if it if it has a phylogenetic basis that is if we find it in other species particularly the ones that are closely related to ours that's the fellow genetic way then they also refer to for example if the behavior arises in in early stages of development particularly in children right and before they have been able to they they were exposed to social learning in certain way in any way or socialization and then they also refer of course to cross-cultural validation that is if they find human universals that's another criteria and then if there's for example an endocrine illogical or neurological basis to it I mean there are different criteria that people use but in this case of imitation and we're going to also talk about mind-reading next do you think that in any way they could fulfill those sort of criteria and still be innate or not well I'm not sure let's take the imitation example um so research from Mike Thomas cellars Max Planck Institute suggests that chimpanzees you know on the whole don't imitate so if you're working on the principle of if you find something in chimpanzees then it can't be it must be innate in humans funny kind of logic just stated like that but even if you even if you take it that way then it doesn't look like imitation is innate you know that the story that I just told you about you know neonatal imitation and we thought we got evidence of it and then it looks like we don't so it looks like imitation doesn't meet that criterion but I think these criteria you're right that there's these kind of conventional things that people point to and say there you know that means it's innate but they often don't ask why why are those things taken as markers and I think Chomsky was really good on this there's a general principle that embraces all of these things which he called poverty of the stimulus you know if if something is present in chimpanzees but they don't have the input in the course of development that humans have then that would imply that even in humans this is innate because the chips have got it – it can't be the experience the humans are having because the chimps have got it and they haven't got that experience that would be a poverty of the stimulus argument similarly you know if something develops so early in childhood that there's no way the child could have had appropriate experience to build it then it must be an age but when one reflects on the reason why these criteria are there that it's to do with poverty versus wealth of the stimulus then it leads one to look more closely at the evidence so for example you find developmental psychologists often saying well you know I'm finding a bias towards conformity in 18 month old infants or in two-year-olds or something like that just because they are 18 months it must mean that you know this is innate no you buy 18 months infants have had a lot of experience you've got to know what experience they've had and whether it's the kind of experience which could direct them towards conformity that could make them conformist so I think one can't use a tick box approach as such one needs to ask was there enough information in the animals or the human child's environment enough information in that environment that could have supported the development of this without a specific genetic predisposition mm-hmm yes that part about the early acquisition of a particular behavior or cognitive trait during development is very interesting because when we talk about socialization we tend to think in terms of transmitting information verbally via language for example and that might not be the case I mean we might not need to transmit information in that way to be influencing children already right absolutely so mean for example with the development of imitation it looks as if it's largely nonverbal interactions which enable children to become capable of imitating it feels like being imitated by adults so when an adult copies the facial movement of the child that gives the child the opportunity to form an association between the feel of doing this with their face and the sight of seeing an adult do it so they forged that sensory motor association so that next time they see this facial expression it gives them an urge as it were to perform the matching action so that's an example of where it's a nonverbal interaction that occurs between an adult and an infant that builds the potential for imitation in the infant very interesting so let's now move on to talk about mind-reading because I guess that this is even more difficult to convince people that really mind-reading our theory of mind is not innate because we look around and even in different cultures and it seems pretty obvious to us that everyone has at least some sort of mind-reading they are able to read other people's minds and to think about their own thinking and what might be around what might be going around in other people's minds so how can you convince people that might mind-reading might not be in it well I think I would first go for that assumption that we all tend to make that the world over people understand one another in terms of their thoughts and feelings and you know I'm no ethnographer but I think there's quite a bit of evidence that there is very marked cultural variation a study which sticks in my mind was done by how with I think the group in Brazil and what he wanted he spent two years with these people who'd had minimal contact with sort of the American European culture and all he wanted to do was to document all the vocabulary that they had for mental states and he found just five terms which he translated as want want very much know forget and remember maybe remember so I mean that contrasts with hundreds of terms for mental states in say English and in most European languages so that's a pretty marked contrast also the metaphysics the better physical assumptions associated with mind-reading marked variation you know where our mental states apparently I mean this is a coming from a review article by Lillard in I think nineteen ninety-eight people who believe that mental states kind of hover outside the head and certainly a wide sweep of cultures who use an individual's social status within the group and the circumstances in which that individual finds themselves now they use use those two factors to predict what that individual is going to do much more than they use speculation about what that individual wants and thinks and so on so I think there might be a lot more variation than we imagine that there is and also I think on the positive side there's lots of excellent work looking at child development looking at the way that the rate at which understanding of the mind in terms of loose and desires develops and children can be predicted by how much conversation about the mind there is between those children and their parents so that's you know gain evidence of wealth of the stimulus that the rate of development is varying with the richness of the information available in the child's social environment mm-hmm and here we get again into the issue of the poverty versus the wealth of the stimulus because this is a very important point to make here that it is the case that adults teach teach children at to a certain extent about how to think about the minds of other people and their own as well yes and I think in that case it's a combination of teaching in a way both grist and mills so through you know say a parent is looking at a picture book with a child and they might point at a picture and say oh look the little boys smiling he's smiling because he's happy he's happy because he's playing with the dog now in a way that that's specifying a number of rule like relationships between behavior and mental states between activities and mental states and behavior and so on you could see that as the grist of mind reading what are these relationships between activities and mental states and relationships between mental states but also there's research suggesting that our whole capacity to conceive of mental states may be provided by learning to use certain grammatical structures in language so I think in in the case of mind reading the development of the capacity to read minds may be highly dependent on language both the learning of grammar and also the communications through language of the fundamentals of a particular cultures theory of mind yes that's very interesting because one thing that immediately came to my mind was the fact that there are a lot of linguists that really don't believe that much in the idea that language influences the way we look at the world and the way we think Steven Pinker for example talks a lot about mental ease and basically that we can AB thoughts without having language and so for example we can have some thoughts that it is really hard for us to put to order to translate into language so that's a very complicated relationship there right between language and thinking and the extent to which the language we use might influence the way we think and it's not obvious far from obvious as you say very complex step out of issues and I'm not an expert on that but I can say that when I first sort of started down this path of developing a cultural evolutionary account of the distinctive features of the human mind I was expecting that the story about language being genetically inherited or the propensity to develop language being genetically inherited I assumed that that would be absolutely sound and therefore that I would be building my cultural evolutionary story on a foundation in which you know perhaps the one thing which is genetically inherited in humans is the propensity you know is grammatical information so the propensity to develop language with certain characteristics so I was shocked when I went to that literature and found out the advances that the cultural evolutionists about language have made the achievements of their computational models that computational models which don't have any language specific information built into them they're just left to run on linguistic input and they develop sophisticated capacities to understand grammar through experience of exposure to artificial grammars research suggesting that you know children who were once thought to have very specific language impairments you know that the one problem that these children had was in learning language recent research showing that instead no all of the children with what was thought to be these specific problems have more general problems in learning sequences so it seems now even though I'm not an expert looking over the fence it seems that even the evidence for genetic inheritance of a propensity to learn language is not secure so going back for a moment to mind reading because there's a very interesting aspect there that I think is worth exploring a little bit more so children are taught at least to a certain extent on how to think about other people's minds and what goes around in their minds and even the association between what happens in their minds and their overt behavior what they see happening in a way so I was thinking how that might influence for example how how we think about emotions and even perhaps how we feel because it's very easy to imagine them that if we are taught to associate a particular world with a particular emotion or feeling then that might influence both how we think about what's happening in the other process of a person's mind when she says for example I'm feeling happy and feeling safe I'm feeling angry and also perhaps the the way we ourselves feel because we also associate feelings with specific events and specific actions and so through associative learning perhaps I mean that could also construct the ow we experience things and even ultimately our sense of self maybe I find that very plausible I am NOT an expert on emotion but I'm interested in the work of Feldman Barrett who I think very much takes Lisa Feldman Barrett very much takes that view of emotion that there is this may be my version of what she says which may not be exactly what she says certainly I find it plausible that there are a lot of intersective signals which you know they in a sense they are not culturally constructed our body is making certain physiological responses to events occurring in the outside world but our emotion language stops up that sea of experience into chunks and offers an interpretation of what those chunks signify about the world about ourselves and so on and that that categorization or chunking process is highly subject to cultural influence via language so that's absolutely fits with the idea that our emotional experience is deeply affected by the culture in which we grow up the self um gosh yes that's a complicated culturally conditioned construct isn't it so yes I would have thought that was very definitely a target whether its target for yeah I mean like any other component of mind reading a target for cultural evolution and that's very interesting because if you're approached the cultural evolutionary psychological or the cognitive gadgets approach to these sorts of mechanisms is true then I would imagine very easily that if different people teach children differently or now to think about minds then that would be a big reason as to why there's so much misunderstanding between people because it's really it would be very easy for people to learn how to think about minds in a certain way and for other people to learn that in another way and for those two different or three different or whatever a number of ways there is to think about minds to conflict with one another yes I think that that's a potential source of confusion miscommunication going back to pact Churchland I mean another possibility is that even when communicators share a theory of mind or a way of mind-reading that that's a very imprecise view of the way that the mind works that belief desire talk talk of thoughts and feelings captures something about the way that minds work but only in a very approximate sense that this is not an exact science and so even if all members of a community have been taught the same thing they all agree on the same principles they may still have an awful lot of trouble working out in a particular case what does this person think or feel so I think lots of sources of noise there so and so do you think that the way we think about minds and emotions and all those sorts of mental phenomena might be negatively influencing research on those same phenomena because I was just thinking for example about the work of Paul Ekman when he when he investigated or researched cross-cultural human universals in facial expressions and I mean it was not simply describing the facial expressions it was there was a world or an emotion that went along with them and I mean couldn't it be the case that when ever people try to do that preps they are somewhat misleading themselves because they are under the influence of their own cultural framework yes I think that that's absolutely a risk and the only thing I would say is it looks to me as if that kind of problem is increasingly being taken seriously and I think Joe Henrik who you mentioned earlier a descendant as it were a component at the California School of cultural evolutionary theory he and his collaborators having coined this acronym weird pointing out that most psychological studies have been done on wealthy educated can't remember what the I stands for it's Western educated industrialized rich rich yes democratic thank you very much that's right so um and I think you know the existence of that acronym has certainly heightened awareness that too much research was being done on Western samples only weird samples only or exactly the same procedures from Western samples were being taken to another part of the world and some flat-footed assumptions were being made about how you could test people with very different cultural backgrounds and I think that's really beginning to change people are getting much more sensitive about this people like christine lagarde and mark nielsen among others are now doing much more sensitive developmental work with other cultures as remote as possible from weird people like us mm-hmm well I mean even in cultural evolutionary theory I guess that even researchers there that right to make the case even will invent Oh perhaps because they are under a lot of influence by by evolutionary psychology when they thought for example about gene-culture co-evolution it real it really seems that they're trying to make the case that at least when culture creates an environmental framework that starts exerting selective pressures on genes that perhaps that's a way by which culture could influence our genetic evolution of course these would have an effect at the genetic level it's not exactly the same thing as we being exposed to a certain culture and then the developmental process acquiring new mental mechanisms that they would be innate as other sorts of mental mechanisms from evolutionary psychology our innate but anyway it seems to me that through gene-culture co-evolution at least they are trying to pay more attention to the cultural side of things yes that for sure but I think culturally evolutionary theory since its inception in the early 1980s has been I think too Swift to assume that enduring change is brought about only via the genes I mean that is plausible for some cases things like lactose tolerance so people start dairying free supply of milk and cheese and all of those kinds of things put selection pressure in favor of individuals who maintain is it well lactose tolerance renin or whatever which enables them to metabolize milk right up into adulthood makes perfect sense that equal incidents of gene-culture co-evolution but when our cultural environment changes the way that we think and builds new cognitive mechanisms that is likely to shield us from selection operating on the genes in a way we can we can now do something developmentally we can we can adapt to novel environments using resources that we develop in the course of childhood it might release selection pressure on the genes so I think I would like to see more modeling work and work in evolutionary theory more generally which acknowledges that yes genetic assimilation is possible a variety of gene-culture co-evolution also a kind of a screening process whereby cultural change slows down or reduces the probability of genetic change and working out in what conditions do you get one and what conditions do you get the other mm-hmm sure so what sort of implications would this all have to always think about human nature because for example going back to evolutionary psychology leda cosmides and john tooby developed this concept of evoked culture back in the 90s and basically they acknowledge that there should be at least some cultural variation in certain aspects because they assume that we all as a species have the same sort of underlying cognitive mechanisms but because we are exposed to different ecological conditions then people would prefer subconsciously of course would prefer certain strategies to others and that would be why these people in different places and different cultures exhibit different sorts of behaviors in the basis of this on the basis of the same underlying cognitive mechanisms but in this case if we can't even be sure about the cognitive mechanisms that are you verso and that are cross-cultural then it would seem to me that human nature would be even more variable than evolutionary psychologists make of it let's see yes I think that there's a kind of a strategic or definitional issue in here and then there's an empirical question so the strategic definitional issue is you know we can't just make up a whole new account of what we mean by human nature the concept of human nature has a thousand years long history more than a thousand years it's always referred to you know people have identified as human nature hidden internal causes of behavior so we want our concept of human nature to have something to do with that so it makes sense to make it what we now understand to be cognitive mechanisms and also if we're going to call it human nature we want the cognitive mechanisms we identify as human nature to be widespread doesn't need to be all and every human has them and they don't need to be exactly the same in whoever has them but they must be the ones that are shared so I think it's possible to say human nature is consists of the types of cognitive process which are found in most people alive today so for example literacy would now be part of human nature because you know well over 50% of humans alive today are able to read so that would make literacy part of human nature I think the the evolutionary psychologists wanted to connect up human nature to evolutionary sort of evolutions ever since Darwin this was a huge intellectual achievement we must somehow plug in our understanding of evolution to our understanding of human nature I mean to agree with them but to identify evolution with just genetic evolution is now an anachronism we now know that the variation and selective retention algorithm which was the core of Darwin's striking discovery isn't only implemented in the genetic case there's also cultural evolution so I think we should regard as human nature cognitive mechanisms which are present in most humans alive today which have been shaped by evolutionary processes and that includes biological and cultural evolution it makes human nature label as the literacy example suggests maybe literacy wasn't part of human nature a few decades ago now thankfully it is mm-hmm so that also makes an interesting case as to how we should think about evolutionary mismatch as evolutionary psychologists put it because they say that perhaps in certain sir in certain circumstances like for example as we developed modern scientific democratic societies and we now live in very big society is much bigger than the Dunbar's number predicts of 150 we now live in societies of millions and millions of people that death could be a problem for us because our cognitive mechanisms wouldn't be attuned to those sorts of conditions and if your approach is correct then that wouldn't be that much of a problem yes cultural evolution contract much more rapid rates of change than genetic evolution can track the generational turnover is is you know if you can learn from your peers as well as from your parents the generational turnover and cultural evolution is much more rapid therefore more rapid environmental change social change can be tracked that's not to say you would never get a mismatch problem but nonetheless it should be much less of a problem than high-church evolutionary psychology suggests cultural evolutionary psychology suggests I mean the slogan that I use that our minds are agile but fragile so we can adapt to relatively rapid change within our lifetimes or over just a few generations but if there are apocalyptic events connected with climate or epidemics or something like that standard evolutionary psychology saying we've got so much in our genes means that each new baby born is born with the propensity to develop all the distinctively human ways of thinking cultural evolutionary psychology says well that's not guaranteed they need a certain social environment in order to develop these distinctively human ways of thinking so if there were apocalyptic events then we could lose not just know-how and technology in facts about the world we could lose our capacity to imitate to think about ourselves and others in terms of mental states for example so that's funny in a way because I was thinking about evolutionary mismatch as being a bad thing but with that in mind it's it seems like even more catastrophic because if we were to lose these sort of cult cultural frameworks and cultural tools then we could even lose cognitive mechanisms themselves yes that is an implication of cultural evolutionary psychology we need to be more we need to be very concerned about the social environments that we create for children to developing mmhmm right okay so just one last question we've talked about imitation mind-reading a little bit about language how do you think we should approach cognitive mechanisms in general that we should do it in the case by case scenario and really try to in a case by case scenario know if to what extent they are innate or required and what extent they are under the influence of culture or other environmental factors or or do you think that cultural evolutionary psychology could develop into an all-encompassing discipline that could potentially apply to all of human cognition I think it would be valuable to have some encompassing modeling work done acknowledging the possibility that it's not just the grist it's the mills which are undergoing cultural evolutionary change so that would be embracing but otherwise I see it as a framework for empirical research on a case by case basis so something like what's currently known as cultural psychology produces you know wonderfully rich characterizations of the way in which different cultures are going about different cognitive tasks but it's a bit a theoretical there isn't really a sort of a framework in which it's operating it's more of a methodology so I think that somewhere where cultural evolutionary psychology could be helpful it's not that I feel that everybody should be an evolutionist that was a feature of high church evolutionary psychology that I always found mystifying it seemed an evangelical faith it seemed to be saying to all psychologists you must take an interest in the evolutionary history of the mechanisms that you study I don't think that's necessary I think many many psychologists you know can just get on with studying the mature features of various mental processes but those who are interested in origins in how mental processes come to do their jobs well in an evolutionary context in a developmental context and they they may have focal interest in one domain or another in morality in causal cognition in episodic memory in meta cognition or whatever but this is an encompassing framework which can offer questions for empirical inquiry and can offer links with research in other cognitive domains mm-hmm okay very well so dr. Hayes let's end the interview here but just before we go would you like to tell people apart from your book of course for which I will be leaving a link in the description box what would be other good places particularly on the internet for them to get in touch with your work well I have website which lists all my publications but also I wrote a Crecy of the book which will shortly be published in the behavioral and brain sciences with about I think 1516 responses and my response to those responses so I know that particularly laboratory scientists don't have much time to read books it's hard work running a lab so if they don't have time to read the book then they could go to the precis shortly to be published in the journal the behavioral and brain sciences okay very well so I will be leaving links to all of that in the description box of the interview and dr. Hayes again it was a real pleasure to have you on the show and it was a very stimulating conversation as I said I already have a lot of evolutionary psychologists on the show and also the top searchers in cultural evolutionary theory so it was really great to have a third approach on the channel thank you very much I enjoyed it enormously hi there thank you for coming to my channel and for watching this interview until the end as you might have noticed I've been putting out regular interviews with academics and intellectuals from a variety of fields so to keep the channel sustainable I would like to ask you to please visit my patreon page and to consider making a pledge there otherwise I also have a PayPal and subscribe star and if you like what I'm doing please share it leave a like and hit the subscription button I would also like to give a huge thank you to my patron skerin litski and Blanchett paralegal ours and la guerra Chantal Salinas Francis fourth Ann's Fredrickson de Bryan Rivera Luca Stefaniuk Sergio and Rihanna ena Hanlon Ricardo Vladimir and dr. Jerry Muller Herbert Quintus and Rutger Voss and also my tree producers is our web Rosie and Jim Frank thank you for all

1 thought on “#209 Cecilia Heyes: Cultural Evolutionary Psychology, Imitation, And Mindreading

  1. Ricardo, these videos are coming fast and furious since the WWE. I have to be quicker at processing the content of each presentation. Your command of the wide ranging subjects and the individuals in the various associated fields is mind boggling.
    I would be interested in how you acquired your expertise. My trail began and continues with Evolutionary Psychology. Keep up the great content.

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