This article argues that mirror neurons originate in sensorimotor associative learning and therefore a new approach is needed to investigate their functions. Mirror neurons were discovered about 20 years ago in the monkey brain, and there is now evidence that they are also present in the human brain. The intriguing feature of many mirror neurons is that they fire not only when the animal is performing an action, such as grasping an object using a power grip, but also when the (...) animal passively observes a similar action performed by another agent. It is widely believed that mirror neurons are a genetic adaptation for action understanding; that they were designed by evolution to fulfill a specific socio-cognitive function. In contrast, we argue that mirror neurons are forged by domain-general processes of associative learning in the course of individual development, and, although they may have psychological functions, they do not necessarily have a specific evolutionary purpose or adaptive function. The evidence supporting this view shows that mirror neurons do not consistently encode action “goals”; the contingency- and context-sensitive nature of associative learning explains the full range of mirror neuron properties; human infants receive enough sensorimotor experience to support associative learning of mirror neurons ; and mirror neurons can be changed in radical ways by sensorimotor training. The associative account implies that reliable information about the function of mirror neurons can be obtained only by research based on developmental history, system-level theory, and careful experimentation. (shrink)
What makes fast, cumulative cultural evolution work? Where did it come from? Why is it the sole preserve of humans? We set out a self-assembly hypothesis: cultural evolution evolved culturally. We present an evolutionary account that shows this hypothesis to be coherent, plausible, and worthy of further investigation. It has the following steps: (0) in common with other animals, early hominins had significant capacity for social learning; (1) knowledge and skills learned by offspring from their parents began to spread because (...) bearers had more offspring, a process we call CS1 (or Cultural Selection 1); (2) CS1 shaped attentional learning biases; (3) these attentional biases were augmented by explicit learning biases (judgements about what should be copied from whom). Explicit learning biases enabled (4) the high-fidelity, exclusive copying required for fast cultural accumulation of knowledge and skills by a process we call CS2 (or Cultural Selection 2), and (5) the emergence of cognitive processes such as imitation, mindreading and metacognition – ‘cognitive gadgets’ specialised for cultural learning. This self-assembly hypothesis is consistent with archaeological evidence that the stone tools used by early hominins were not dependent on fast, cumulative cultural evolution, and suggests new priorities for research on ‘animal culture’. (shrink)
Cognitive gadgets are distinctively human cognitive mechanisms – such as imitation, mind reading, and language – that have been shaped by cultural rather than genetic evolution. New gadgets emerge, not by genetic mutation, but by innovations in cognitive development; they are specialised cognitive mechanisms built by general cognitive mechanisms using information from the sociocultural environment. Innovations are passed on to subsequent generations, not by DNA replication, but through social learning: People with new cognitive mechanisms pass them on to others through (...) social interaction. Some of the new mechanisms, like literacy, have spread through human populations, while others have died out, because the holders had more students, not just more babies. The cognitive gadgets hypothesis is developed through four case studies, drawing on evidence from comparative and developmental psychology, experimental psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. The framework employed – cultural evolutionary psychology, a descendant of evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory – addresses parallel issues across the cognitive and behavioural sciences. In common with evolutionary developmental biology and the extended evolutionary synthesis, cultural evolutionary psychology underlines the importance of developmental processes and environmental factors in the emergence of human cognition. In common with computational approaches, it emphasises the power of general-purpose mechanisms of learning. Cultural evolutionary psychology, however, also challenges use of the behavioural gambit in economics and behavioural ecology, and rejects the view that human minds are composed of “innate modules” or “cognitive instincts.”. (shrink)
In The Secret of Our Success, Joseph Henrich claims that human beings are unique—different from all other animals—because we engage in cumulative cultural evolution. It is the technological and social products of cumulative cultural evolution, not the intrinsic rationality or ‘smartness’ of individual humans, that enable us to live in a huge range of different habitats, and to dominate most of the creatures who share those habitats with us. We are sympathetic to this general view, the latest expression of the (...) ‘California school’s’ view of cultural evolution, and impressed by the lively and interesting way that Henrich handles evidence from anthropology, economics, and many fields of biology. However, because we think it is time for cultural evolutionists to get down to details, this essay review raises questions about Henrich’s analysis of both the cognitive processes and the selection processes that contribute to cumulative cultural evolution. In the former case, we argue that cultural evolutionists need to make more extensive use of cognitive science, and to consider the evidence that mechanisms of cultural learning are products as well as processes of cultural evolution. In the latter case, we ask whether the California school is really serious about selection, or whether it is offering a merely ‘kinetic’ view of cultural evolution, and, assuming the former, outline four potential models of cultural selection that it would be helpful to distinguish more clearly. (shrink)
Dennett, a philosopher, and Griffin, an ethologist, have recently presented influential arguments promoting the extended use of intentional language by students of animal behavior. This essay seeks to elucidate and to contrast the claims made by each of these authors, and to evaluate their proposals primarily from the perspective of a practicing comparative psychologist or ethologist. While Griffin regards intentional terms as explanatory, Dennett assigns them a descriptive function; the issue of animal consciousness is central to Griffin's program and only (...) tangentially related to Dennett's. The philosopher's arguments are founded upon a more coherent metaphysics, but Dennett neglects to substantiate his claim that animal competences can be most readily modelled by artificial intelligence specialists when they are described in intentional terms. Both authors assume that some examples of animal behavior should not be given an intentional characterization, but neither provides adequate guidelines for the identification of cases belonging to this negative set. (shrink)
Cultural evolution depends on both innovation (the creation of new cultural variants by accident or design) and high-fidelity transmission (which preserves our accumulated knowledge and allows the storage of normative conventions). What is required is an overarching theory encompassing both dimensions, specifying the psychological motivations and mechanisms involved. The bifocal stance theory (BST) of cultural evolution proposes that the co-existence of innovative change and stable tradition results from our ability to adopt different motivational stances flexibly during social learning and transmission. (...) We argue that the ways in which instrumental and ritual stances are adopted in cultural transmission influence the nature and degree of copying fidelity and thus also patterns of cultural spread and stability at a population level over time. BST creates a unifying framework for interpreting the findings of otherwise seemingly disparate areas of enquiry, including social learning, cumulative culture, overimitation, and ritual performance. We discuss the implications of BST for competing by-product accounts which assume that faithful copying is merely a side-effect of instrumental learning and action parsing. We also set out a novel “cultural action framework” bringing to light aspects of social learning that have been relatively neglected by behavioural ecologists and evolutionary psychologists and establishing a roadmap for future research on this topic. The BST framework sheds new light on the cognitive underpinnings of cumulative cultural change, selection, and spread within an encompassing evolutionary framework. (shrink)
Being imitated has a wide range of pro-social effects, but it is not clear how these effects are mediated. Naturalistic studies of the effects of being imitated have not established whether pro-social outcomes are due to the similarity and/or the contingency between the movements performed by the actor and those of the imitator. Similarity is often assumed to be the active ingredient, but we hypothesized that contingency might also be important, as it produces positive affect in infants and can be (...) detected by phylogenetically ancient mechanisms of associative learning. We manipulated similarity and contingency between performed and observed actions in a computerized task. Similarity had no positive effects; however, contingency resulted in greater enjoyment of the task, reported closeness to others, and helping behavior. These results suggest that the pro-social effects of being imitated may rely on associative mechanisms. (shrink)
Cognitive Gadgets is a book about the cultural evolution of distinctively human cognitive mechanisms. Responding to commentators with different and broader interests, I argue that intelligent design has been more important in the formation of grist (technologies, practices and ideas) than of mills (cognitive mechanisms), and that embracing genetic accommodation would leave research on the origins of human cognition empirically unconstrained. I also underline the need to assess empirical methods; query the value of theories that merely accommodate existing data; and (...) ask whether acquiring literacy is more laborious than learning to imitate, to talk and to read minds. (shrink)
The question of whether non-human animals are conscious is of fundamental importance. There are already good reasons to think that many are, based on evolutionary continuity and other considerations. However, the hypothesis is notoriously resistant to direct empirical test. Numerous studies have shown behaviour in animals analogous to consciously-produced human behaviour. Fewer probe whether the same mechanisms are in use. One promising line of evidence about consciousness in other animals derives from experiments on metamemory. A study by Hampton (Proc Natl (...) Acad Sci USA 98(9):5359–5362, 2001 ) suggests that at least one rhesus macaque can use metamemory to predict whether it would itself succeed on a delayed matching-to-sample task. Since it is not plausible that mere meta-representation requires consciousness, Hampton’s study invites an important question: what kind of metamemory is good evidence for consciousness? This paper argues that if it were found that an animal had a memory trace which allowed it to use information about a past perceptual stimulus to inform a range of different behaviours, that would indeed be good evidence that the animal was conscious. That functional characterisation can be tested by investigating whether successful performance on one metamemory task transfers to a range of new tasks. The paper goes on to argue that thinking about animal consciousness in this way helps in formulating a more precise functional characterisation of the mechanisms of conscious awareness. (shrink)
Responding to commentaries from psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, and anthropologists, I clarify a central purpose of Cognitive Gadgets – to overcome “cognition blindness” in research on human evolution. I defend this purpose against Brunerian, extended mind, and niche construction critiques of computationalism – that is, views prioritising meaning over information, or asserting that behaviour and objects can be intrinsic parts of a thinking process. I argue that empirical evidence from cognitive science is needed to locate distinctively human cognitive mechanisms on the (...) continuum between gadgets and instincts. Focussing on that requirement, I also address specific challenges, and applaud extensions and refinements, of the evidence surveyed in my book. It has been said that “a writer's idea of sound criticism is ten thousand words of closely reasoned adulation.” I cannot disagree with this untraceable wag, but the 30 commentators on Cognitive Gadgets provided some 30,000 words of criticism that are of much greater scientific value than adulation. I am grateful to them all. The response that follows is V-shaped. It starts with the broadest conceptual and methodological issues and funnels down to matters arising from specific empirical studies. (shrink)
Research on ‘moral learning’ examines the roles of domain-general processes, such as Bayesian inference and reinforcement learning, in the development of moral beliefs and values. Alert to the power of these processes, and equipped with both the analytic resources of philosophy and the empirical methods of psychology, ‘moral learners’ are ideally placed to discover the contributions of nature, nurture and culture to moral development. However, I argue that to achieve these objectives research on moral learning needs to overcome nativist bias, (...) and distinguish two kinds of social learning: learning from and learning about. An agent learns from others when there is transfer of competence—what the learner learns is similar to, and causally dependent on, what the model knows. When an agent learns about the social world there is no transfer of competence—observable features of other agents are just the content of what-is-learned. Even learning from does not require explicit instruction. A novice can learn from an expert who is ‘leaking’ her morality in the form of emotionally charged behaviour or involuntary use of vocabulary. To the extent that moral development depends on learning from other agents, there is the potential for cultural selection of moral beliefs and values. (shrink)
Automatic imitation or “imitative compatibility” is thought to be mediated by the mirror neuron system and to be a laboratory model of the motor mimicry that occurs spontaneously in naturalistic social interaction. Imitative compatibility and spatial compatibility effects are known to depend on different stimulus dimensions—body movement topography and relative spatial position. However, it is not yet clear whether these two types of stimulus–response compatibility effect are mediated by the same or different cognitive processes. We present an interactive activation model (...) of imitative and spatial compatibility, based on a dual-route architecture, which substantiates the view they are mediated by processes of the same kind. The model, which is in many ways a standard application of the interactive activation approach, simulates all key results of a recent study by Catmur and Heyes (2011). Specifically, it captures the difference in the relative size of imitative and spatial compatibility effects; the lack of interaction when the imperative and irrelevant stimuli are presented simultaneously; the relative speed of responses in a quintile analysis when the imperative and irrelevant stimuli are presented simultaneously; and the different time courses of the compatibility effects when the imperative and irrelevant stimuli are presented asynchronously. (shrink)
Commentators have tended to focus on the conceptual framework of our article, the contrast between genetic and associative accounts of mirror neurons, and to challenge it with additional possibilities rather than empirical data. This makes the empirically focused comments especially valuable. The mirror neuron debate is replete with ideas; what it needs now are system-level theories and careful experiments – tests and testability.
The conjunctive conception takes imitation to be a combination of observational learning and copying. In the target article, and elsewhere, this conception generates problems in (1) explaining the copying of intransitive actions, (2) elucidating the potential functions of imitation, and (3) recognising when the correspondence problem has been avoided rather than solved. Hurley's careful use of subpersonal and personal levels of explanation shows us how to tackle these and other questions about imitation.
Byrne & Russon's proposal that stimulus enhancement, emulation, and response facilitation should be lumped together as priming effects conceals important questions about nonimitative social learning, fails to forge a useful link between the social learning and cognitive psychological literatures, and leaves unexplained the most interesting feature of phenomena ascribed to.
The bifocal stance theory (BST) of cultural evolution has prompted a wide-ranging discussion with broadly three aims: to apply the theory to novel contexts; to extend the conceptual framework; to offer critical feedback on various aspects of the theory. We first discuss BST's relevance to the diverse range of topics which emerged from the commentaries, followed by a consideration of how our framework can be supplemented by and compared to other theories. Lastly, the criticisms that were raised by a subset (...) of commentaries allow us to clarify parts of our theory. (shrink)