Friday, October 22, 2010

Getting Darwin Wrong: Why Evolutionary Psychology Won’t Work
by Brendan Wallace
Imprint Academic

The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology
by Mark Rowlands
MIT Press

One of the unfortunate consequences of relentless attacks on the Darwinian concept of evolution by religious and political zealots is that scientists and others often respond to all challenges in Darwin’s neighborhood as fundamentalist enemy attacks. But there are legitimate questions from those who also reject creationism and broadly speaking consider themselves Darwinists.

These challenges are represented by three books with similar titles: What Darwin Got Wrong (by Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, 2010) questions some of Darwin’s own conclusions. Darwin’s Blind Spot (Ryan, 2002) summarizes new science that challenges Darwin’s most dominant scientific descendants, known as Neo-Darwinists (Richard Dawkins, for example.) And this book, Getting Darwin Wrong, challenges a theory in another field that in the author’s opinion misuses or misconstrues Darwinian evolution.

This epic theory has been misused from the start. Even 90 years ago George Bernard Shaw observed that Darwin “had the luck to please everybody with an axe to grind.” The first and perhaps still most influential were the Social Darwinists (survival of the fittest justifies predatory capitalism, etc.) and proponents of what philosopher Mary Midgley calls the Escalator Fallacy of evolution as inevitable progress. These days it can also be the sloppy or cynical use of natural selection to support a supposition, scientific or otherwise.

In this book Brendan Wallace is not attacking the general idea that the human psyche was influenced by evolution, but the particulars of the school of experimental psychology that uses Evolutionary Psychology as its brand name. He identifies it as holding that the brain processes information as a digital computer, and related “cognitivist” theories of mind as popularized by Steven Pinker, for example. Evolution, they say, has bequeathed a rigid “cognitive architecture” with pre-installed programs for dealing with the world. (Ironically, another theorist attacked in Getting Darwin Wrong is the co-author of What Darwin Got Wrong.)

While there’s some metaphorical appeal in such general statements, Wallace argues that the precise theory is a logical and empirical house of cards, and leads to a warped sense of how our minds work—one that turns out to repeat inferential errors of both the Social Darwinist and Escalator fallacies, and the simplistic Neo-Darwinist emphasis on the individual, as opposed to the group and the environment.

In general Wallace asserts that this theory at best oversimplifies both natural selection and the human mind, as well as revealing yet another academic dogma that may have survived not because it is valid but because famous people professed it, and academic departments and careers depended on it.

In The New Science of the Mind, Mark Rowlands argues for an approach to mental processes different from the dominant cognitive science models, without rejecting them. He argues that cognition is “embodied” (it occurs not only in the brain but elsewhere in the body) and “extended” (mental processes “extend out, in various ways, into the organism’s environment.”) He develops his theory of the “amalgamated mind” as “the conjunction of the mind embodied and the mind extended.”

Neither Wallace or Rowlands directly addresses the work of the other; neither even appears in each other’s index. (For those keeping score at home, Rowlands does subdivide the field into Cartesian, non-Cartesian and anti-Cartesian cognitive science. As far as I can tell, he’s non, Wallace is anti.)

Rowlands treatment is more extensive and theoretical (and his book has the more appealing cover and layout) but strikingly, neither he nor Wallace delves into much brain science. Their approach is philosophical, emphasizing close logical analysis (Wallace mostly in dispute, Rowlands mostly in support of his theory.)

While both books are written clearly enough to be read by readers who haven’t followed the ins and outs in this field, they both require a lot of attention and some specialized knowledge (especially Rowland.) Though both eventually include a level of detail that was beyond my interest, I do remember this kind of writing (rigorous, with a minimum of jargon and some humor) with some affection from my philosophy courses in college.

I come away from these books still suspicious of theories of mind based so much on computers (or in Rowland’s case, on ideas that sound as if inspired by GPS and the Internet), but noting the cautious expansion of ideas of mind Rowland espouses. I’m not convinced they are expansive—or accurate—enough to do the rest of us much good, yet.

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