David Greaber, the anarchist anthropologist, talks about his important book, Debt: The First 5000 years (Melville House, 2011):
Many thanks to Brent Strickland and Pierre Jacob for such a thoughtful, stimulating and intellectually courteous reply to our piece on “The cultural evolution of mind reading” (Heyes & Frith, 2014). Chris Frith and I have decided to respond separately because Chris wants to focus on the distinction between implicit and explicit mindreading, and, as we mentioned in our article, this is an issue on which we have a gentleman’s (dis)agreement. No short response could do justice to Brent & Pierre’s wide-ranging discussion, but here are the main points I would raise in a fuller response.
Ground-clearing. Our claims about 1) cultural diversity, 2) dedicated neural structure, and 3) putative evidence of mindreading in infants, play a ground-clearing or freeing-up rather than a foundational role in our argument. They suggest that the evidence supporting the nativist view - that humans genetically inherit processes specialised for mindreading – is not as compelling as many people assume. This makes room for our cultural evolutionary view, but the positive case – the evidence that mind reading is taught – comes from elsewhere. It comes from the substantial body of work by Candy Peterson, Ted Ruffman, Virginia Slaughter, and many others, examining the impact on mindreading development of what adults say to children about mental states. A sample of that evidence is reviewed in the section of Heyes & Frith (2014) headed “Learning to read minds”.
Cross-cultural variation. I agree entirely with Stickland & Jacob that it would take a good deal more than one cross-cultural study (Shahaeian et al, 2011) “to undermine the fundamental assumption that people from different cultures have the same basic abilities to ascribe beliefs, intentions and desires to others”. For me, it also required ethnographic data of the kind reviewed by Lillard (1998) to open up the possibility that contemporary ‘Western’ theory of mind is not the standard issue for all humanity.
Neural specificity. Dehaene and his colleagues have done important work identifying which neurocognitiveparts are recycled to make print reading possible. But, in nature, don’t all complex mechanisms come from recycling? This is a genuine, not a rhetorical, question. I can’t imagine how either cultural evolution or genetic evolution could produce a complex neurocognitive system except by adjusting and reconfiguring pre-existing parts. And if they all come from recycling, having information about which parts are recycled for mindreading, although fascinating in its own right, would not tell us whether the recycling was done by cultural or genetic evolution.
Conflicting developmental data. Stickland and Jacob suggest that “there is no evidence that children are explicitly and laboriously taught by knowledgeable adults to ascribe intentions, desires and beliefs to others”. Well, it depends what we mean by “explicitly and laboriously”. Chris and I are not suggesting that, even in Western cultures, adults understand themselves to be teaching children to read minds, or that they adopt a systematic (and often dull-to-deliver) approach of the kind used to teach print reading. But the evidence we sampled under “Learning to read minds” (Heyes & Frith, 2014) suggests that the development of mind reading is dependent on epistemic engineering – for example, adults structuring environments so that children have a chance to learn ‘easy’ mental states before ‘hard’ mental states – and instruction-in-conversation about the referents of mental state terms, and the relations between mental states and behaviour.
Problems with Heyes & Frith’s solution. So, now we get to the gentleman’s (dis)agreement between me and Chris. As Stickland and Jacob point out, my response to putative evidence of mindreading in preverbal infants is to argue that it doesn’t stand up; that the operation of domain-general psychological processes (not all of them “associative”) gives the false impression that infants can attribute false beliefs. Instead of implicitly mindreading, they are “submentalising”. Whatever the merits of this suggestion, I do argue for it, I don’t merely assume it to be true. Strickland & Jacob kindly cited an article in which I reviewed the evidence of implicit mindreading in adults. There are two others, closely examining the data on implicit mindreading in infants (Heyes, 2014a) and nonhuman animals (Heyes, 2014b). These review articles were my groundwork for the short format Heyes & Frith paper.
Circularity. Which comes first, mindreading or language? Stickland and Jacob are absolutely right to zero in on question. It is the deepest and most contentious issue – historically and conceptually – in debates about the origins of mindreading. Indeed, it is far too deep and troubled for me to offer an answer here, but I would make two observations. The first is biographical: Perhaps it is because I have spent much of my working life studying social learning, where there is no intention to teach, let alone an understanding of that intention on the part of the learner, but I am more optimistic than Stickland & Jacob about the possibility of learning-from-teaching – even language learning-from-teaching – before mindreading has got off the ground. Second, our cultural evolutionary account of the origins of mindreading is essentially a bootstrapping story, and, from a distance, bootstrapping looks an awful lot like circularity.
Heyes, C. M. (2014a) False belief in infancy: a fresh look. Developmental Science, 17,647-659
Heyes, C. M. (2014b) Animal mindreading: What's the problem? Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. DOI: 10.3758/s13423-014-0704-4
Lillard A (1998) Ethnopsychologies: cultural variations in theories of mind. Psychological Bulletin, 123, 3-32.
I agree with Brent. I don't think that there is any strong, let alone conclusive evidence to show that Aspergers or for that matter people with regular autism altogether lack metaprepresentational abilities. That they make a less frequent and less reliable use of these abilities, at least in mindreading, is another, orthogonal matter.
Anyhow, look at the bigger picture. If you have no account of how an organism without metarepresentational abilities could learn to metarepresent representations, then what hypothesis the experimental evidence mentioned by Pierre might be corroborating? That the acquisition of a metarepresentational ability language in people with Asperger who had no such ability to start with is actually taking place through learning language even if we don’t know how? For this you would need evidence on another scale and of another force.
In any case, your excellent “circularity argument” applies to language learning: you need metarepresentational abilities to acquire language, hence your acquisition of metarepresentational abilities cannot be an outcome of language acquisition.
Mind you, it is quite plausible, on the other hand, that language acquisition considerably boosts your metarepresentational abilities, but this is another story.
While I generally agree with Chris, I think there are a few issues that are brought up by Boyer and Tooby of further interest; mostly concerning the idea that culture can be clarified by taking a strict cognitive approach to the matter. The two issues of interest for me are 1) the idea that "culture" is a useless scientific term is indicitive of a lack of definition within the literature aiming to understand and explain "culture" more generally; particularly in light of attempts in the realm of "cultural evolution" and 2) subsequently, that culture is in some way causal. To set aside one issue from the start, if we can not define cultre, it can not be causal within a scientific framework. Secondly, if culture is a by-product or aggregate (or property), then "cultural objects" (presumably defined) could be causal, but there is little reason why Culture needs to be causal. To address the first issue. Definitional issues plague cultural evolution. Culture is one concept that is relied upon but is really unnecessary outside of it being a statement positing some explination. Most work on cultural evolution, however defined, (I think the Boyd-Richerson-esque definition of it as "socially transmitted information" is sufficient and a good starting point) is only looking at a sub-set of some cultural phenomena, ex. technology. While technology often has some sort of measurable and physical fitness measure, most cultural information-beliefs, behaviors, ritual actions, interpretations, schemas, etc. etc.,- have no comparible measure. So if anything we're not talking about "cultural evolution" so much as changes in cultural units (which, apparently able to be selected for in cultural evolution, have also never been sufficiently defined). This lack of fitness measure also reveals an underspecification of mechanisms of selection. So it would seem that there is a lack of the units and mechanisms of selection that would be necessary for a theory of cultural evolution if culture is indeed "socially transmitted information". (This has been said before in other words by Martin, 2006-a critique that there hasn't apparently been taken seriously).Secondly, and more importantly, the idea that culture is causal. If we all agree that humans are acting based in stimuli in their environment, and that their environment consists of both the typical biological entities of interest to most biologists as well as social actors and beleifs of interest to most in the humanties; and if we all agree-just for the time being-that culture has something to do with the information shared and held by social individuals in a specific population, of course "culture" is causal. The issue isn't *if*, the issue is then *how*. Within this framework, "culture" is potentially a useful abstraction (akin to J.Z. Smith's views on religion). (You can't stop reading as the following is mostly apathetic if there are papers to gratde) The argument really becomes, what do we gain? It seems that really, all we gain is rhetoric to talk about a large class of barely defineable phenoema. Scientifically I wouldn't say we gain anything. We may lose clarity if anything. However, it does help to situate these studies within a larger literature about a class of human actions more generally.L. H. Martin "Can Religion Really Evolve? (And What is it Anyway?)" in: The Evolution of Religions: Studies, Theories, and Critiques. Edited by Bulbulia, Sosis, Harris, et al. (2006)
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