Re: Cognition and Evolution

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Thu Jun 06 1996 - 22:24:50 BST

> From: "Holloway, Stephen" <>
> Date: Sun, 26 May 1996 16:00:33 +0100 (BST)
> Richard Dawkins likened Evolution to a Blind Watchmaker making a watch.
> He said that all the organisms surviving on the planet through all the
> changes, is just random variation and a completely blind process. He
> concluded that those organisms possessing the best adaptions, will
> survive. Darwin's arguement was similar to this.

Darwin said it first; Dawkins is simply explaining Darwin's theory using
his metaphor.

> Survival relied on
> the ability or chance that an organism could adapt to a change in it's
> environment. The sociabiological argument says that it is survival of
> the fittest genes and not the individual that is of relevance to
> evolution. This is called Inclusive fitness.

No, inclusive fitness refers to the success with which your genes are
passed on if you help close relatives who share many of your gene: The
old theory just concerned the fitness of the organism; inclusive fitness
shows that fitness is a wider concept, including the near relatives,
because they have many of the same genes. Just as it is beneficial to
you and your genes if you eat, survive and reproduce, it is beneficial
to your genes if many of your siblings survive and reproduce; so it "pays"
to help them. (Note, though, that like a taste for sugar, the
inclination to favour your kin is not a conscious genetic strategy; it
is a proximal mechanism.)

> However, Darwin proposes two causes for how evolution has helped to
> explain cogniton, Distal and Proximal. Distal causes are those very
> early causes that were necessary for survival and reproduction. For
> example, eating sugar was necessary for raising the blood sugar levels
> and giving one the energy to stay alive. The Proximal reaction to this
> is, now we eat sugar because we like the taste of it and not primarily
> because we need it to survive. Proximal causes are present
> psychological ones and invlove what we want and what we feel like
> doing. Because cognition is our brain and mind telling us what we want
> and feel like doing it is fair to say that the distal causes which have
> bred the Proximal causes into our evryday lives do help to explain
> cognition.

Well, you've pressed most of the right buttons, but you need to put it
together so kid-sib can make sense of it: For "cognition," pick a
specific cognitive capacity, say, language. Assume that, back in the
EEA, somehow, those who started to communicate with language
(propositions) fared better, in terms of survival and reproduction, than
those who didn't. The distal cause of our language capacity is therefore
the usual Darwinian one. But language itself is a means, not an end. We
don't have the urge to talk to one another because we want to survive
and reproduce: We feel like talking. That's proximal.

Now we invent some "styles" of language: It is correct to say
(to write, actually) "a lot" but incorrect to write "alot." People who
write "a lot" get better jobs than people who write "alot" because the
latter are considered to be less well educated, hence less well prepared
for the job, hence less likely to perform well. So it looks as if
writing "a lot" instead of "alot" is useful for your survival and
perhaps reproduction, because it gets you a job: Is it, therefore, a
distal cause? No it isn't; it's proximal. What makes it advantageous is
not a genetic tendency to write "a lot" instead of "alot," but merely a
social convention we have, favouring people who write one rather than
the other. So it's all proximal language, culture and cognition that are
calling the tune, not Darwin, the Blind Watchmaker.

But language itself, unlike the tendency to write "a lot," WAS shaped by
the distal forces of evolution. So evolution might be able to help
explain cognition if we can understand what it was in the EEA that made
language an advantage, but in the present environment, language has
become a power unto itself, no longer answering to evolution, but rather
to the "envoronment" that language itself has created, the linguistic
environment in which we all live and speak and write...

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue Feb 13 2001 - 16:23:45 GMT