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"Evolution cannot explain how minds work"

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Diane Pearce.

Attempts to apply Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to cognition have not fared well, mainly because questions of evolution and of mechanism are fundamentally different. Evolution is concerned with a historical reconstruction of brain and cognition, while the actual underlying mechanisms are the domain of cognitive neuroscience and psychology. The new discipline of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) argues that the mind of modern humans was formed as a result of selection pressures in the Stone Age. The empirical data are often over-interpreted, and EP is mostly based upon an outdated view of evolutionary biology. It is often not clear a priori whether a particular cognitive or neural trait is homologous (i.e. the outcome of common descent) or the result of convergent evolution, or indeed beyond the domain of natural selection. A good example is human speech and language, where both neural and genetic homology and evolutionary convergence are involved regarding speech, but human language has a unique combinatorial complexity. Thus, I argue that in the study of animal and human cognition, questions of function and evolution and questions of mechanism should be seen as logically separate. Functional and evolutionary considerations may be used as clues to generate hypotheses regarding the underlying mechanisms. But these hypotheses may be false and should always be tested empirically, using methods from cognitive neuroscience, behavioural biology and experimental psychology.

This talk is part of the Madingley Lunchtime Seminars series.

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