Re: Cognition and Evolution

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Thu Jun 06 1996 - 22:55:56 BST

> Date: Sun, 26 May 1996 21:19:12 +0100 (BST)
> From: "Fletcher, Emma" <>
> Cognition obviously has to be explained by evolution: as what other
> source could have given rise to such a capacity? Within the course of
> evolution there also had to be a point at which mental processing, or
> cognition, arose. cognition may occur to varying degrees i.e. it may be
> complex or simple, or indeed at any level in between. The development
> of these unconscious mechanisms would in general have been gradual; in
> step with structural changes in the brain. However certain cognitive
> elements, such as language, quite possibly would have been acquired
> without gradual adaption. (M. Donald)
> It is clear that the organisms with a cognitive capacity must, at some
> point in time, have been placed at a selective advantage. Surely
> evolution is not blind to these processes which must heighten the
> organism's mental capacity?

Not sure what you mean by "blind": The Blind Watchmaker is Blind. It
doesn't choose things because it has a design, or plan or purpose in
mind (it has no mind). But evolution IS sensitive to whatever succeeds
genetically; it's not blind to that. So language must have produced
genetic dividends in the EEA, so that those who had it and/or did it
survived and reproduced better than those who didn't. And it is to those
distal causes, and those only, that the Blind Watchmaker is not "blind":
It doesn't "shape" the input, the variation, which may be random, or the
leftovers from some other, prior selection; but it does shape the
output, namely, the representation in the next generation. Nothing
succeeds like success; and success also shapes the outcome. More
linguistically inclined organisms in the next generation, if it helped
the prior generation to survive and reproduce.

> Although the development of cognition is founded in the individual's
> genealogy, Donald stresses the importance of social and cultural
> interaction; and thus the influence of the environment upon cognitive
> development. Donald suggests human cognitive ability was heightened by
> improvement in motor skills, enabling mime- like communication. Lexical
> invention eliminated the short comings of this method, such as the
> inability to mime abstract thoughts. Donald further speculates that
> such social interaction encouraged narrative thought, and enhanced
> processing mechanisms.
> Evolution must explain cognition, as ultimately evolution must have
> installed in man the unconscious mental processing mechanism which
> defines mankind's cognitive ability.

Right, but having explained the ORIGINS and even the selective ADVANTAGES
of cognition, distally, in the EEE, evolution no longer explains what we
for the most part DO with our cognitive capacity these days. That's
shaped more by the products of cognition, such as styles, traditions,
conventions, which are purely proximal.

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