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When I studied philosophy in college many years ago, it was an article of faith that one need not, indeed ought not, refer to any `facts' derived from natural or behavioral science in erecting theories of mind or morality. It was considered legitimate to draw upon the `facts' of everyday life as well as the insights derived from introspection, I was taught, but any serious dependence of philosophical theory upon the findings of contemporary sciences, except of course in dealing with the philosophy of that science, is to make a category error. Probably this accounts in part for the equally hostile treatment given to philosophy in the sciences. I recall that when, as a graduate student in economics at Harvard in 1963 or so
Thankfully, that prejudice lies largely in the past, contemporary philosophers dealing with the nature of being human having becomes rather attentive to current scientific findings. Kim Sterelny, whose formal training is in philosophy and is both Professor of Philosophy at Victoria University and a member of the Research School of the Social Sciences at the Australian National University, exemplifies the best of the new breed of research-savvy philosophers. Thought in a hostile world is a brilliant book that sifts through virtually all areas of modern research into human behavior, and synthesizes a coherent picture of the nature of human cognition. The synthesis is accurate to the facts but is sufficiently speculative to make his vision both exciting and imaginative. I happen to agree with Sterelny on virtually all points, and some of his more imaginative sallies have forced me to rethink several major points that I had thought to have already nailed down. This book is quite accessible to the novice, but should be read quite carefully as well by evolutionary biologists, economists, sociologists, and all others involved in the behavioral sciences.
Sterelny has two major goals this ambitious book. The first is to offer an explicit and substantive theory of the evolution of human intelligence [Homo sapiens is by far the most intelligent of species, and the gap between ourselves and other intelligent species is stunningly large]. The second is to explain the relationship between "folk psychology" as exhibited in virtually all know societies, and an "integrated scientific conception of human cognition." (p. viii) Sterelny handles the first goal by developing three critical modeling tools: group selection, niche construction, and phenotypic plasticity. All of these depend on the fact that humans are the only known species to sustain cumulative cultural evolution. Because culture can be maintained across generations, groups can be selected on the basis of the extent to which their cultural practices are biological fitness enhancing. Niche construction for humans takes the form of humans creating the very environment to which their own genetic development is subjected, so the combination of group selection and cumulative culture leads to gene-culture coevolution [Sterelny does not use this term], the dynamic phenomenon that accounts for human nature. Phenotypic plasticity means that the neuronal and cognitive structure of the individual are subject to environmental influence, so the human brain does not simply deal with a given evolved architecture, but emerges during individual development according to the nature of its early experiences. Phenotypic plasticity also includes an immense capacity to learn technical ways of understanding and dominating nature, and the internalization of culturally specific ethical norms, making humans virtually "programmable," like computers, with socially valuable goals, such as honesty, hard work, loyalty, piety, and the like.
Sterelny's study suggests that the "massively modular" view of human cognition promulgated so assiduously by the Evolutionary Psychologists is radically incorrect (see also David C. Geary, The Origin of Mind: Evolution of Brain, Cognition, and General Intelligence (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2005). Massive modularity is simply incompatible with phenotypic plasticity and the multi-modal manner that humans react to novel environments, allowing us to occupy a wider variety of ecological niches than any other vertebrate.
Probably the most innovative argument in Thought in a Hostile World is Sterelny's defense of the "folk psychology" model of human cognition, according to which human behavior can be explained by humans having (a) preferences, (b) constraints, and (c) beliefs, so that behavior consists of choosing the behavior that is most favorable to preferences, given the individuals beliefs concerning the structure and dynamics of the outside world, and subject to the time, effort, and other material constraints that the individual faces. Sterelny presents compelling arguments that this "folk psychology" is virtually universal, and has evolved biologically because it is a basically accurate model of human behavior that allows people to predict and understand the behavior others, thus enhancing their biological fitness. In recent years several researchers have found that humans have a "theory of mind" not possessed by most creatures, that facilitates social learning and strategic interaction (Baron-Cohen, Frith and Frith, Pinker, Tomasello, Povinelli). Sterelny adds to this to human "theory of mind" power a highly sophisticated "model of behavior" based on motives, beliefs, and constraints.
Sterelny's "folk psychology" model is of course the rational actor model of standard economic theory, although Sterelny defends a sophisticated version of the model proposed by Jerry Fodor's The Language of Thought (1975). Fodor proposes what he calls the "Simple Coordination Thesis," which holds that human successfully predict the behavior of others in complex situations because their model of mind, based on preferences, beliefs, and constraints, is an accurate representation of how humans really think. Now, of course, there are limits to this argument. Humans also have a "folk physics" that they use to successfully manipulate the world, but some of its principles are simply incorrect. Indeed, modern physics took off when it replaced false folk notions (e.g., an object tends to slow down unless it is continually acted upon) by more sophisticated and non-intuitive notions (e.g., Galilean equivalence). We probably can expect the same from sophisticated alternatives to folk psychology, but as Leonard Savage showed in his Foundations of Statistics (1954), highly simplified axioms that can be expected to hold for most living creatures generate something very close to the folk psychology model, which thus holds not only for humans but for most other creatures as well, although with "beliefs" replaced by simpler notions of how the external world is represented internally to the creature. Sterelny argues also, reasonably enough, that simple organisms simply have "sensations," whereas complex animals have "preferences," which are themselves highly complex representations of categories of objects that satisfy specific needs. This argument is reminiscent of the Lancaster-Intriligator model of consumption, a model that makes much more sense than the traditional consumer model.