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Reciprocating Bill

Posts: 4265
Joined: Oct. 2006

(Permalink) Posted: Feb. 02 2011,18:57   

Second comment, cached:
Reciprocating Bill | January 30, 2011 7:11 PM
Flannery -

Thank you for your response. I'll address your points in turn.

"Pinker is invoking the “cognitive niche” as an explanatory mechanism for the human mind, and as such it is surely reasonable to expect some empirical evidence on its behalf"

I agree. As I stated below, "That response alone does not amount to science (nor is Wallace's claim science), nor does it follow from the argument that events can have happened that they did indeed happen. The science lies in the very hard work of formulating hypotheses regarding human cognitive evolution that are testable."

As I also stated below, some extremely interesting work is being done on these very difficult questions, for example at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and by researchers such as Tomasello, Call, Povinelli, Hare, and many others. Hard won specific, testable hypotheses regarding the nature and evolution of primate theory of mind (a pillar in the foundation of human cognition) are being addressed through thoroughly experimental means (see Brian Hare's elegant work on the distribution among primates of an understanding that one's conspecifics 'see' and act upon what they have seen). The results have unmistakeable importance for the evolution of social-cognitive intelligence and the foundations of many of the human capabilities we both admire. Further, the cross-fertilized work in developmental psychology stimulated by this perspective has yielded significant, unexpected discoveries regarding the unfolding of human cognition in infants, empirical findings that have unmistakable relevance to our understanding of human cognitive evolution. Whether or not you find that work "convincing," a large community of primatologists, developmental psychologists and cognitive scientists find it a fertile, productive and progressive area of empirical research, a framework that guides research in a way that has yielded important discoveries and posed additional researchable questions. I find it wholly inaccurate to characterize this work as "hand waving and hedges."
Any reader who wishes may begin to judge for themselves by visiting

"Wallace never argued that humans couldn’t acquire higher mental attributes by means of natural selection, he simply said that such an argument lacked evidence"

At the outset you quote, approvingly I gather, Wallace as characterizing the distance between human beings and other species as "unbridgeable," and that "nothing in evolution can account for the soul of man" (my emphasis). That statement precisely is a claim that human beings can't have acquired higher mental attributes by means of evolutionary mechanisms, and not an assertion regarding the evidence.

"Wallace pointed out that the uniquely human attributes of abstract reasoning, humor, mathematical ability, musical aptitude, artistic talent, etc. are inexplicable in terms of ordinary survival needs."

Of course, this again is a wholly conceptual claim, one that assumes it's conclusion. And, once again, it is a claim that "humans couldn’t acquire higher mental attributes by means of natural selection," a argument you say Wallace never made.

Moreover, these abilities are at bottom elaborations of the powerful human capacity for representation, both as displayed by individuals and as deployed through the shared "distributed cognition" that characterizes our way of making a living. The capacious representational abilities that characterize human cognition have everything to do with the "survival needs" associated with the way human beings have made their living throughout their history. To say otherwise is tantamount to asserting that flight can't have evolved in birds because flight has nothing to do with basic survival needs.

That said, all of these skills have been hugely elaborated by means of cultural rather than biological evolution over the past several tens of thousands of years, and therefore do have many elaborate characteristics that are traceable to processes other than natural selection.

"The observational and experiential power of Wallace’s position is underestimated."

Ultimately, again, the science lies in the very hard work of generating testable hypotheses concerning the origins of these abilities and devising empirical research (both experimental and field) capable of answering the questions posed. It is the experimental power of Wallace's ideas - or rather the lack of same - that should concern its advocates.

Myth: Something that never was true, and always will be.

"The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you."
- David Foster Wallace

"Here’s a clue. Snarky banalities are not a substitute for saying something intelligent. Write that down."
- Barry Arrington

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