Category Archives: evolutionary psychology

Winter 2020 discussion prompts

  • What is humanity’s situation with respect to surviving long-term with a good quality of life? (Frame the core opportunities and obstacles.)
  • What attributes of our evolved, experientially programmed brains contribute to this situation? (What are the potential leverage points for positive change within our body-brain-mind system?)
  • What courses of research and action (including currently available systems, tools, and practices and current and possible lines of R&D) have the potential to improve our (and the planetary life system’s) near- and long-term prospects?

Following is a list of (only some!) of the resources some of us have consumed and discussed online, in emails, or face-to-face in 2019. Sample a few to jog your thoughts and provoke deeper dives. Please add your own additional references in the comments below this post. For each, give a short (one line is fine) description, if possible.

Storytelling as adaptive collective sensemaking

Bietti et al. (2018), Topics in Cognitive Science. The abstract:

“Storytelling represents a key element in the creation and propagation of culture. Three main accounts of the adaptive function of storytelling include (a) manipulating the behavior of the audience to enhance the fitness of the narrator, (b) transmitting survival‐relevant information while avoiding the costs involved in the first‐hand acquisition of that information, and (c) maintaining social bonds or group‐level cooperation. We assess the substantial evidence collected in experimental and ethnographic studies for each account. These accounts do not always appeal to the specific features of storytelling above and beyond language use in general. We propose that the specific adaptive value of storytelling lies in making sense of non‐routine, uncertain, or novel situations, thereby enabling the collaborative development of previously acquired skills and knowledge, but also promoting social cohesion by strengthening intragroup identity and clarifying intergroup relations.”

How cooperatives are driving the new economy

See this Evonomics article on the topic based on Tomasello’s research in this article. You can also see his latest research in his 2019 book Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny. You can find a free copy here. It supports that cooperatives are much more in line with our evolutionary heritage than the corporate structure, thus highlighting the different focuses in evolutionary theory itself.

“New peer-reviewed research by Michael Tomasello, an American psychologist and co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has synthesized three decades of research to develop a comprehensive evolutionary theory of human cooperation. What can we learn about sharing as a result?

“Tomasello holds that there were two key steps that led to humans’ unique form of interdependence. The first was all about who was coming to dinner. Approximately two million years ago, a fledgling species known as Homo habilis emerged on the great plains of Africa. At the same time that these four-foot-tall, bipedal apes appeared, a period of global cooling produced vast, open environments. This climate change event ultimately forced our hominid ancestors to adapt to a new way of life or perish entirely. Since they lacked the ability to take down large game, like the ferocious carnivores of the early Pleistocene, the solution they hit upon was scavenging the carcasses of recently killed large mammals. The analysis of fossil bones from this period has revealed evidence of stone-tool cut marks overlaid on top of carnivore teeth marks. The precursors of modern humans had a habit of arriving late to the feast.

“However, this survival strategy brought an entirely new set of challenges: Individuals now had to coordinate their behaviors, work together, and learn how to share. For apes living in the dense rainforest, the search for ripe fruit and nuts was largely an individual activity. But on the plains, our ancestors needed to travel in groups to survive, and the act of scavenging from a single animal carcass forced proto-humans to learn to tolerate each other and allow each other a fair share. This resulted in a form of social selection that favored cooperation: ‘Individuals who attempted to hog all of the food at a scavenged carcass would be actively repelled by others,’ writes Tomasello, ‘and perhaps shunned in other ways as well.’ […]

“The second step in Tomasello’s theory leads directly into what kinds of businesses and economies are more in line with human evolution. Humans have, of course, uniquely large population sizes—much larger than those of other primates. It was the human penchant for cooperation that allowed groups to grow in number and eventually become tribal societies.

“Humans, more than any other primate, developed psychological adaptations that allowed them to quickly recognize members of their own group (through unique behaviors, traditions, or forms of language) and develop a shared cultural identity in the pursuit of a common goal. ‘The result,’ says Tomasello, ‘was a new kind of interdependence and group-mindedness that went well beyond the joint intentionality of small-scale cooperation to a kind of collective intentionality at the level of the entire society.'”

Cognitive aspects of interactive technology use: From computers to smart objects and autonomous agents

That is the title of a recent Frontiers ebook located here. This would make an excellent discussion topic as it’s pretty much the sort of things we’ve been investigating.  We are Borg. The blurb from the link follows:

Although several researchers have questioned the idea that human technology use is rooted in unique “superior” cognitive skills, it still appears that only humans are capable of producing and interacting with complex technologies. Different paradigms and cognitive models of “human-computer interaction” have been proposed in recent years to ground the development of novel devices and account for how humans integrate them in their daily life.

Psychology has been involved under numerous accounts to explain how humans interact with technology, as well as to design technological instruments tailored to human cognitive needs. Indeed, the current technological advancements in fields like wearable and ubiquitous computing, virtual reality, robotics and artificial intelligence give the opportunity to deepen, explore, and even rethink the theoretical psychological foundations of human technology use.

The miniaturization of sensors and effectors, their environmental dissemination and the subsequent disappearance of traditional human-computer interfaces are changing the ways in which we interact not only with digital technologies, but with traditional tools as well. More and more entities can now be provided with embedded computational and interactive capabilities, modifying the affordances commonly associated with everyday objects (e.g., mobile phones, watches become “smart watches”).

This is paralleled by novel frameworks within which to understand technology. A growing number of approaches view technology use as resting on four legs, namely cognition, body, tool, and context (of course including social, cultural, and other issues). The idea is that only by viewing how these notions interact and co-determine each other can we understand what makes the human invention, adoption, and use of technology so peculiar.

Consider for example how advanced artificial prostheses are expanding the human capabilities, at the same time yielding a reconsideration of how we incorporate tools into our body schema and how cognition relates to and interacts with bodily features and processes. Then, of course, the new mind/body-with-prostheses participates in physical, cultural, and social contexts which in their turn affect how people consider and use them. Analogously, technologies for “augmenting the human mind”, such as computational instruments for enhancing attention, improving learning, and quantifying mental activities, impact on cognition and metacognition, and how we conceptualize our self.

Conversely, while virtual environments and augmented realities likely change how we experience and perceive what we consider reality, robots and autonomous agents make it relevant to explore how we anthropomorphize artificial entities and how we socially interact with them.

All these theoretical changes then back-influence our view of more traditional technologies. In the end, even a Paleolithic chopper both required a special kind of mind and at the same time modified it, the users’ bodily schema, or the way in which they participated in their sociocultural contexts.

Technological changes thus inspire a renewed discussion of the cognitive abilities that are commonly associated with technology use, like causal and abductive thought and reasoning, executive control, mindreading and metacognition, communication and language, social cognition, learning and teaching, both in relation to more traditional tools and complex interactive technologies.

The current Research Topic welcomes submissions focused on theoretical, empirical, and methodological issues as well as reflections and critiques concerning how humans create, interact, and account for technology from a variety of perspectives, from cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, constructivism, phenomenology, ecological psychology, social psychology, neuroscience, human-computer interaction, and artificial intelligence.

Relevant topics include but are not limited to:
– Distributed cognition in interactive environments
– Social cognition and computer-mediated communication
– Theoretical and empirical investigation of embodiment and technology
– Affordances of “traditional objects” and technological devices
– Theory of mind and social interactions with intelligent agents and robots
– Cognitive models for designing, interacting with, or evaluating technology
– Empirical studies on human-technology interaction
– Evolutionary accounts of human tool use
– Differences between animal and human tool use
– Methodological issues and opportunities in human-technology interaction

Rutt interviews Bret Weinstein

An excerpt from the transcript follows. The podcast is here. Weinstein is an evolutionary biologist. Weinstein:

“So more or less our problem is that the magic of humans arose through an evolutionary process driven by an arms race in which human beings were their own worst competitor. So at that point that one reaches what my PhD advisor called ecological dominance, that arms race causes a massive jump in, essentially, computing power. And that computing power came along with all of our best and worst characteristics. So it resulted in a spectacular capacity for collaboration, but the objective of that collaboration is increased competitive capacity against other groups with similar powers.

“Now I don’t think we can spend too much time worrying about whether or not that was a good process, it got us this far, and it has given us the capacity to understand where we are. But what it has done is it has created a drive that is now outstripping our capacity to compensate for its consequences. So that quote you read from my website, essentially, is about what I would call a sustainability crisis. Now conservatives often hear, when a liberal like myself starts talking about sustainability, they assume that we are cryptically talking about climate, about which there is much disagreement in some circles. I’m not talking in particular about climate, I do think we have a climate problem, but even if it were false, we still have a sustainability problem in which we are simply using resources and creating waste in a way that simply, mathematically, cannot continue indefinitely.

“So you have to at least be a cornucopian to imagine that the problems we are creating will be dealt with in due course by solutions that will magically emerge. I don’t think it’s reasonable to be a cornucopian, but you would have to at least make that jump and say, ‘Well yes, were we to continue down this road, we’d be in big trouble, but we all know that solutions arise when they’re needed.’ So if you don’t believe that, then you would end up in my camp and, what I know from experience, to be your camp thinking, ‘Oh shit, we’ve got a very serious problem, and we don’t have a very long time horizon with respect to figuring out what the solution looks like.'”

Divine transport

From this article. Now if we can only interpret trance states postmetaphysically. The religions that formed around trance states in the article, though evolutionarily adaptive at the time, have solidified into metaphysical dogma and are no longer adaptive to our world today. It though does beckon us to create postmetaphysical rituals with music, dance, invocation, incense etc. so that we can bond together via embodiment instead of just intellectually.

“So there is a need for a new idea, and coming to the fore now is an old one revisited, revised and rendered more testable. It reaches back a century to the French sociologist Émile Durkheim who observed that social activities create a kind of buzz that he called effervescence. Effervescence is generated when humans come together to make music or perform rituals, an experience that lingers when the ceremonies are over. The suggestion, therefore, is that collective experiences that are religious or religious-like unify groups and create the energy to sustain them.”

“The explanation is resurfacing in what can be called the trance theory of religious origins, which proposes that our palaeolithic ancestors hit on effervescence upon finding that they could induce altered states of consciousness. Research to test and develop this idea is underway in a multidisciplinary team led by Dunbar at the University of Oxford. The approach appeals to him, in part, because it seems to capture a crucial aspect of religious phenomena missing in suggestions about punishing gods or dangerous spirits. ‘It is not about the fine details of theology,’ Dunbar told me, ‘but is about the raw feelings of experience, and that this raw-feelings element has a transcendental mystical component – something that is only fully experienced in trance states.'”

“Dunbar believes that a few hundred thousand years ago, archaic humans took a step that ramped up this capacity. They started deliberately to make music, dance and sing. When the synchronised and collective nature of these practices became sufficiently intense, individuals likely entered trance states in which they experienced not only this-worldly splendour but otherworldly intrigue. They encountered ancestors, spirits and fantastic beasts, now known as therianthropes. These immersive journeys were extraordinarily compelling. What you might call religiosity was born. It stuck partly because it also helped to ease tensions and bond groups, via the endorphin surges produced in trance states. In other words, altered states proved evolutionarily advantageous: the awoken human desire for ecstasy simultaneously prompted a social revolution because it meant that social groups could grow to much larger sizes via the shared intensity of heightened experiences.”

“Meaning-making, the transcendent, and openness to revelation and discovery are core parts of the human niche and central to our evolutionary success. […] The trance hypothesis is neutral about the truth claims of religions whether you believe or don’t, though it does suggest that transcendent states of mind are meaningful to human beings and can evolve into religious systems of belief.”