How did human minds become so different from those of other animals? What accounts for our capacity to understand the way the physical world works, to think ourselves into the minds of others, to gossip, read, tell stories about the past, and imagine the future? These questions are not new: they have been debated by philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, evolutionists, and neurobiologists over the course of centuries. One explanation widely accepted today is that humans have special cognitive instincts. Unlike other living animal species, we are born with complicated mechanisms for reasoning about causation, reading the minds of others, copying behaviors, and using language.
Cecilia Heyes agrees that adult humans have impressive pieces of cognitive equipment. In her framing, however, these cognitive gadgets are not instincts programmed in the genes but are constructed in the course of childhood through social interaction. Cognitive gadgets are products of cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution. At birth, the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees. We are friendlier, our attention is drawn to different things, and we have a capacity to learn and remember that outstrips the abilities of newborn chimpanzees. Yet when these subtle differences are exposed to culture-soaked human environments, they have enormous effects. They enable us to upload distinctively human ways of thinking from the social world around us.
As Cognitive Gadgets makes clear, from birth our malleable human minds can learn through culture not only what to think but how to think it.
“Human minds are strange and powerful, but how did they become that way? Cecilia Heyes argues that culture is the prime mover, upgrading the mind by installing a cascade of ‘gadgets’—non-genetic innovations that enable imitation, mind-reading, episodic memory, and more. Cognitive Gadgets is an elegant, compelling, and groundbreaking work that should be read by anyone interested in what we are and how we came to be.”—Andy Clark, University of Edinburgh
“Evolutionary psychology has been plagued by theories that are interesting but not testable, and theories that are testable but not interesting. In her exposition of cognitive gadgets, Heyes escapes from this trap. By emphasizing specific mechanisms, she makes precise predictions about what makes human cognition unique, and demonstrates that human culture is not just about accumulating knowledge—it also enables each of us to learn how to think.”—Chris Frith, University College London
“Cecilia Heyes presents a new hypothesis to explain the one feature that distinguishes Homo sapiens from all other species: the mind. Through lucid, compelling writing, this masterly exegesis proposes that the key features of the human mind, termed ‘cognitive gadgets,’ are the products of cultural rather than genetic evolution. It will stimulate its readers to think deeply, as Heyes has done, about what it means to be human.”—Lord John Krebs, University of Oxford
“Cognitive Gadgets is a book written with a strong conviction, boldly taking on deeply entrenched views on topics such as the genetic basis of language and imitation. It will be a very positive contribution to long-held debates about the nature of being human.”—Steven Mithen, author of The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body
“Cognitive Gadgets is a terrific book. Heyes makes a very surprising claim, arguing that human cognitive capacities—language, technical and causal intelligence, and the capacity to understand others—are not built by natural selection, but are instead cultural adaptations, installed by social learning. It is a richly informed, beautifully clear, and lucidly argued case.”—Kim Sterelny, Australian National University
“How much of what is distinctively human depends on our biological (genetic) evolution and how much is culturally influenced or learned? This book will make you think about this old question anew and wonder if you have drawn the lines between these two kinds of inheritance in the right places.”—Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
About the Author:
Cecilia Heyes is Senior Research Fellow in Theoretical Life Sciences and Professor of Psychology at All Souls College, University of Oxford.