Blute Blog

Blute's blog about evolutionary theory: biological, sociocultural and gene-culture.

Archive for June 2019

Enriching the Cultural Evolution Project with Cognitive Psychology but . . .

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Anyone who enjoys reading ‘big picture’ books involving the behavioral and brain sciences in an interdisciplinary context will enjoy Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking by Cecilia Heyes. Its goal is almost, well, grandiose. It addresses what is unique about humans; distinguishing among nature, nurture and culture; a generic genetic starter kit for the latter; the distinction between social and cultural learning; and neurocognitive mechanisms – the latter being “small but important” parts of human minds including selective social learning, imitation, mindreading and language (although calling these “gadgets” almost trivializes them). This framework used strikes me as more of a combination of cultural evolutionary theory and cognitive psychology than of cultural evolutionary theory and evolutionary psychology as the author claims. I suspect that the reason for the claim as made is that putting the terms “evolution” and “psychology” together makes it impossible not to address evolutionary psychology for disciplinary reasons even though most of the discussion of the latter in the book is in fact dissenting.

I would criticize two points while still endorsing much of the project as a whole. The third section of chapter 2 claims that variants of ideas or behaviors are “unitized by common sense or folk psychology” and in section 2.3 of the target article that is said to be the “only” way. This cavalierly dismisses the work of dozens of social scientists and humanists – anthropologists, archaeologists, historical linguists and others doing research on cultural evolution. They have demonstrated, using a variety of quantitative scientific methods, that the classification of cultural traits into groups within groups is as revealing of the history of the historical relationships among them as Darwin first argued was the case for biological traits.

The second criticism I would make is of the strong distinction drawn between social and cultural learning when culture is a population of social learning events and particularly the claim that no mechanism of cultural inheritance is analogous to DNA replication. To the contrary, social learning by linguistic instruction whether oral, written, or electronic as opposed to by observation in any sensory modality is analogous to genetic transmission in a surprising amount of detail. For example, both are structurally composed of digital strings (nucleotide bases genetically and phonemes linguistically) which aid stability in transmission, larger basic units of function (codons genetically and morphemes and lexical items linguistically), and more inclusive units of each until one reaches that which can stand alone – a genome genetically or a sentence or utterance linguistically. Moreover units of function in both are said to be symbolic rather than iconic because of the arbitrary i.e. historical nature of the link between strings of symbols and what they stand for or represent. None of this should be taken to imply that the meaning of strings of symbols in either case is not enriched in other ways – by many kinds of cytoplasmic inheritance and inductive environmental influences biologically and tones, gestures, facial expressions, illustrations, emojis etc. linguistically.

Despite these and other criticism that could be made, I have no doubt that cognitive psychology will eventually add much to the cultural evolutionary project including possibly Heyes four gadgets which she presents as a program for future research.

Written by Marion Blute

June 13, 2019 at 7:19 pm

Who Needs Pragmatism? Nobody and Everybody.

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I did not pay a lot of attention to the revival of pragmatism in sociological theory in the second half of the twentieth century. One reason was I sensed some chauvinistically American nationalism after the leadership in social theory shifted to Europe in the post-Parsonian period. The implicit claim of pragmatism was “Oh, well there is an important historical tradition in social theory that is quintessentially American”.

But the major reason for my inattention was scientific. The core premise of pragmatic philosophy is that what is true is what works i.e. consequences are what matter. However, a century old philosophy is a poor substitute for the three major selectionist scientific theories – biological evolution by natural selection, individual learning by instrumental or operant conditioning, and sociocultural evolution by social learning, variation and sociocultural selection – all three of which embody that premise. These sciences share pragmatism’s premise, but they are scientific instantiations – each with a large number of related theoretical propositions, derivations, empirical support etc.

Nor did the three have their historical roots in pragmatic philosophy – if anything the reverse is the case. The early pragmatic philosophers were influenced by Darwin (see for example Nungesser 2017). In short, nobody in the social sciences needs a 19th century philosophy, but all need it in one or more of its scientific forms.


Nungesser, Frithjof. 2017. “The evolution of pragmatism: On the scientific background of the pragmatist conception of history, action and sociality.” European Journal of Sociology 58(2) 327-367.

Written by Marion Blute

June 2, 2019 at 7:09 pm