Does Evolutionary Psychology Explain Mind? - Bertram Malle

Bertram Malle - Psychology and Sociology

Bertram Malle

Bertram F. Malle is a Professor of Psychology in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University.

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Bertram
Malle

Prof, Psychology and Philosophy, Brown University

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Bertram in trying to understand what the human mind is, philosophers, scientists, everybody has their say. In recent years, evolutionary psychology, an attempt to use evolution to show how the mind has developed very naturally, has become very controversial. How do you see the role of evolution to explain what the mind is today?

Bertram Malle:

Evolutionary psychology is a term that really has two meanings. One is a more narrow meaning of a literature that focuses on sexual selection, parental investment and very powerful processes by which humans have acquired certain tendencies, preferences patterns of behavior. And that's an important field but we shouldn't think that those forces explain the entire human mind. They have an impact on often very concrete social capacities that we have, but when we think about evolutionary psychology in a broader, in the second sense, it's the evolution of all the psychological capacities that we have. And it's not just biological evolution and it's not just sexual selection as the basis, but it's cultural evolution and it is selection on the basis of what works for a community. And what works for a community is really fairly simple if you have a community of 30, 50 people, nomadic hunter and gatherers, which basically humans were until about 12,000 years ago. So a relatively simple life. Now, very important to live together because there might be food one day and not for four days. Highly egalitarian communities. And the same humans, pretty much the same genetics, suddenly 12,000 years ago settled down. They built tents and houses and then they found agriculture, and that is evolution. But it's not genetic mutations that changed. This had an enormous impact on our psychology. If you will. On our minds. Our minds are relatively undefined. We are the most amazing learning machine in the universe. Which means that we learn very different things if we live among 5,000 right around us and we have neighbors that we see every day or you live among 50 wandering through the area and maybe you have seen 10 for a few months and then not seen them for a few years. That is cultural evolution is really about the culture in which we live that we create but that also creates us. And I think that evolutionary psychology in the second meaning; any evolutionary processes that influence psychology is really just beginning to influence our field and I think there are fantastic questions to answer in there.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Certainly 12,000 years ago our brain was, if not identical to the way it is today, extremely close. So what the mind was then and what the mind is now as it's expressed seems enormously different, but based upon the raw anatomy and physiology it's the same substrate.

Bertram Malle:

Exactly.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

and so something has to have made a huge difference.

Bertram Malle:

Right. Now there were biological changes before that but it was actually very boring for probably about 50, 60,000 years. Now there is a point at which Homo sapiens migrated into Asia and Europe, probably pretty close anatomically to the way we are now. And then he took a long time, little art here; some ornaments there, some burying there. But then suddenly everything exploded with human settlement. So yes you have this, this brain system that is a powerful adapting machine. We can live in the cold north of Scandinavia and in Asia and in the hot south of Africa. In that sense wonderful adaptation. But then came the adaptation to culture. To different ways of living surrounded by new objects that people have created that they have invented. And nowadays we are surrounded by technology, so much non-human objects that we have to learn about that we have to deal with. That all is a reflection that that brain 12,000, 15,000 years ago, if it is really pretty much the same, and we believe it is, has to be responsive to whatever environment it is put into, which means that our infants, our children could basically become almost anything, a hunter-gatherer or a modern iPhone user, depending on whether they get the kind of cultural input. And they do. They learn always faster than their parents, which is I think sometimes an anecdote but sometimes really a truth, that learning is so powerful, so fast in the young. The older generation takes a little longer, but each time that young generation generates a new culture that then the next one has to learn.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And yet when that brain evolved it didn't evolve knowing there was going to be this rich and continuously enriching cultural that will enable all this productivity.

Bertram Malle:

If I may anthropomorphize for a moment, nature took a big risk. Allowing an organism to evolve that is basically undefined when it's born, human infants are nothing. They are a swarm of cells, they can do nothing. They are completely dependent on parents on support, and then they learn at a rapid rate that is just unbelievable. That's a risk because those infants could, you know, pretty much all die, but the risk paid off. There is this, this organism that can learn anything at a rate that is unsurpassed, and by learning can also teach others and then create, in really just a very, very brief time a completely different world.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And what happens in the process is you have an exponential growth. If you trace the history of what you're saying that very long periods of time and then things happen and then they happen more rapidly because you have this exponential growth, but the fascinating thing is that from a cultural perspective that makes sense. But if you look at it, it's the same physical object that is being able to, to achieve this exponential growth.

Bertram Malle:

It's the, it's' the most powerful tool because it isn't yet a tool. It isn't yet a hammer, it isn't yet a screwdriver. It isn't yet a scale. It is whatever it needs to be in response to a challenge, in response to an environment. And this is what makes us powerful, and we can destroy powerfully each other and the environment, and this is what makes us the hope for this planet too because we are the most creative. We can come up with new ideas that can radically change our culture. We may even have already ideas of how to solve our climate problem. We just haven't yet identified it and I think this is what ultimately makes me feel reasonably good about humans. They are capable of the most awful things that have ever happened on this planet. And they are capable and have shown to create the most amazing things that have ever happened. So the future will have both paths open, and we have to hope that as a community as a whole we will get to the more positive sides.