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Evolution in Mind

Allen Lane: 1997Pp. 276 £25

The name of the game in cognitive science today is evolutionary psychology. In addition to Henry Plotkin's new book, recent years have seen the publication of many accomplished popularizations of the field, including Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species, Michael Gazzaniga's Nature's Mind, Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Kinds of Minds, and Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable. These authors cite one another frequently, being close allies and, in some cases, personal friends. The list is by no means exhaustive, and ignores professional papers in the specialized journals.

Most of these books are well crafted, often crisp, at times peppy, and occasionally infuriating to cognitive scientists of a different persuasion. The authors have created a scientific-literary genre, as well as a new subfield of psychology. Academics in other specializations are advised to leaf through at least one of these volumes before going to lunch at the faculty club. Would it not be mildly embarrassing to be found ignorant of evolutionary psychology?

Evolution in Mind is as good a point of entry as any, indeed it has been written precisely for this purpose. Plotkin is a leading exponent of the philosophical school known as ‘evolutionary epistemology’ (that is, the evolution of knowledge) and has proved in the past, in more scholarly works, to be the kind of experimental psychologist who feels perfectly at ease conversing with the giants of philosophy. His new work is terse and engaging, avoiding not only details and technicalities but also sensationalism and flippancy. It is, in a way, a concise encyclopaedia of psychology — if by psychology one means the natural science of the mind, with a strong emphasis on the word natural.

According to Plotkin, the theory of evolution is the Atlantis of psychology. After the death of William James, a whole Darwinian continent has been lost for psychology, and has to be made to resurface. The evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky used to say that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Plotkin modifies this motto slightly, claiming that “in psychology nothing makes complete sense except in the light of evolution” (his emphasis). By judiciously grafting selfish-gene theory, game theory, behavioural ecology and neural networks onto mainstream cognitive science, he provides a fine introductory textbook not only to evolutionary psychology but also to modern psychology in general.

I, for one, siding more with structurally oriented modularity theorists such as Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor (who hold that our cognitive abilities are products of innate organs of mind, and whose work the book brilliantly expounds), disagree with Plotkin on only two crucial points. First, because the modularity of mind seems to be not only true, but also arguably (as Plotkin stresses) the most important discovery of modern cognitive science, there is no justification for his alignment with authors who for some reason desire to go ‘beyond’ modularity, even at the price of smuggling back useless remnants of the defeated theory of ‘general intelligence’.

Second, we are still waiting for an example of genuine psychological explanation that descends easily from evolutionary insights but would remain inaccessible to mainstream structural-computational cog-nitive science. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two largely unsung heroes of Plotkin's book, have tried hard to account for our strange and spontaneous conditional logic by invoking an adaptation-driven ‘cheater-detector algorithm’. But their approach, surely novel and stimulating, never did manage to beat more traditional alternatives. The evolutionary psychologists are still in desperate need of patented, specifically Darwinian, mental devices to cash in their vaulting ambitions.

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