Evolution and the Social Mind
Research Across the Disciplines
Evolution and the Social Mind
Ted Bergstrom, Economics
Leda Cosmides, Psychology
Paul Hernadi, English
John Tooby, Anthropology
Project Summary
Intellectual background
Emerging interdisciplinary connections
Institutional background
Present and Future Funding
Research projects
Collective Action
  Discursive Universals
Eductational initiatives
Graduate Emphasis
  Collaboration with UCLA
  Electronic Presence


Introduction  Top

Converging lines of evidence now suggest that the human mind or brain is not well characterized as a "blank slate." Instead, it appears to contain a rich and heterogeneous set of functionally specialized cognitive or neural programs as part of its evolved species-typical design. Researchers from the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences propose to use these findings as the starting point for a series of investigations designed to kindle novel research and intellectual exchange. Initially, two lines of inquiry will be used to give focus to the early phases of interdisciplinary collaboration: (1) What cognitive programs enable human minds to transform sets of unrelated individuals into coalitions that can act as coordinated units, solving what economists call the problem of collective action? (2) How might evolved cognitive and emotional universals help to explain discursive universals, as well as other widely recurrent elements in the arts? These investigations will be pursued through open workshops and jointly planned experiments (and, where possible, through cross-cultural and neuroscience studies). As part of this initiative, we will create an Evolutionary Behavioral and Social Science program involving a formal graduate emphasis at UCSB, a seminar series, workshops, and a joint graduate program with UCLA.

Intellectual background  Top

For most of this century, the most widely accepted view within the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences was that virtually all human mental content derived from individual experience with the physical or social world. That is, adult mental content was acquired or constructed through the operation of general-purpose learning mechanisms that, like the parts of a tape recorder or a camera, impart no content of their own to the outcome: Human nature was viewed as a blank slate plus a capacity to learn culture, and so nothing interesting about culture or social life was believed to arise from human nature itself. Recently, however, a series of findings from evolutionary biology, cognitive science, neuroscience, biological and cultural anthropology, developmental psychology, linguistics, and artificial intelligence have emerged that collectively challenge this view, and that, when integrated, lead to an alternative research framework often called evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology starts from multiple, converging lines of evidence that the human mind or brain contains, in addition to whatever general learning systems there may be, a large collection of functionally specialized computational devices analogous to expert systems in artificial intelligence or, more loosely, to the specialized application programs people use on their personal computers. Just as personal computers now commonly come factory pre-installed with such specialized programs as a word-processor, spreadsheet, calendar, drawing program, etc., so too the human mind appears to have, as part of its species-typical design, a rich and heterogeneous set of evolved cognitive programs (also called by other terms such as modules or adaptive specializations). These content-specific mental programs may be supplying many of the initial building blocks out of which ideas, institutions, and cultural products are assembled, making the specific attributes of human nature relevant to understanding culture and social interaction.

For example, all normally developing humans from every culture tested appear to have what has been called an intuitive physics or object mechanics (i.e., objects are solid, bounded, permanent, cannot pass through each other or occupy the same space at the same time without deformation, influence each other only by direct contact so that there is no action at a distance, and so on). These cognitive programs seem not to be "learned" in any ordinary sense, but appear through neural maturation on an evolved developmental timetable independent of the specifics of experience or culture, often very early in life (like teeth, such adaptations need not be present at birth). The intuitive physics module, for example, appears already active in infants as early as they can be reliably tested (around two months). Indeed, results suggest that the human brain contains mechanisms that are functionally specialized for cooperation, grammar acquisition, face recognition, threat analysis, food choice, social exchange, snake avoidance, emotional expression recognition and interpretation, aggressive threats, ingroups and coalitions, contagion, hazard avoidance, incest avoidance, learning about the biological world, inferring the contents of others' minds, and scores if not hundreds of other distinct functions.

According to this view, natural selection engineered these cognitive programs over human evolutionary history to solve the adaptive information-processing problems regularly encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The designs of these programs collectively constitute a precisely characterizable definition of human nature -- one that can be progressively mapped through careful cognitive experimentation, neuroscience research, and cross-cultural investigation through an intrinsically interdisciplinary enterprise. These systems can be described (1) physically, in terms of the neural structures, chemistry, and physiological processes involved; (2) computationally, in terms of their informational properties or meaning: their specialized data formats, core concepts, specialized operations, and motivational consequences; (3) behaviorally, in terms of the patterns of behavior, choice, and social interaction they support; and (4) "humanistically", in terms of how the activation of such a program is experienced by particular persons, and what interpretations or meaning systems it guides the individual to subjectively inhabit or intersubjectively share.

Emerging interdisciplinary connections  Top

These discoveries have uncovered close connections between formerly distant fields, and so have deep implications for erasing traditional disciplinary boundaries and prompting new interdisciplinary research collaborations and agendas -- possibilities that UCSB is already taking the lead in exploring. To begin with, evolutionary biology, hunter-gatherer studies, social anthropology, biological anthropology, and cognitive science -- rarely joined together -- are being integrated to allow the joint development of models of the adaptive problems hominids faced and the problem-solving cognitive programs that hominids evolved to solve them. These models are then used to guide the experimental mapping of the structure of these programs, through cognitive experiments, psychological studies, and neuroscience methods. If the evolved cognitive program is an adaptation and has been characterized correctly, it ought to be species-typical, and so anthropological techniques should be able to detect its presence in every culture tested, no matter how different from Western industrial societies in which most psychology is conducted. Moreover, these cognitive programs embody the rules that govern actual economic decision-making, so their mapping will have implications for economic theory, allowing it to be integrated for the first time with accurate models of the psychology of choice. Although existing economic theory tends to work well with large decision-making aggregates, theory and observed behavior sharply diverge in small group settings, especially for group behavior and cooperation -- areas where the evolutionary psychology of hunter-gatherers provides a rapidly developing alternative to rational choice theory through considering the functions and conditions of cooperation in ancestral environments. Reciprocally, economists have developed analytical tools such as game theory that are transforming how evolutionary biologists model of how natural selection operates, creating the new field of evolutionary economics. (Investigators in this project intend to bring together game theory techniques from economics, cognitive experiments, and field experiments among foraging peoples to see if they can develop better models of coalitional behavior than rational choice theory supplies.)

The newest interconnections are with the humanities. An accurate and detailed model of human nature, whether expressed in terms of a universal human mental design, an inventory of "innate ideas," a description of the functional architecture of human emotions, or an outline of universal interpretive modalities cannot help but be centrally relevant to literature, history, philosophy, linguistics, and the other disciplines in the humanities. For example, over the last three years, graduate students in UCSB's English Dept. (Michelle Scalise, Francis Steen) who are working in the Center (see below) have led the way, with two doctoral dissertations now underway specifically applying these new ideas to questions in literature and culture history. New techniques are also being imported into the study of literature and history: Francis Steen is conducting experiments designed to see whether conceptual primitives present in our evolved intuitive physics might explain certain aspects of Renaissance science, and Michelle Scalise is conducting experiments on the nature of how cognitive dimensions of memorability shape differential retention of some elements of folklore. Because the human mind is richly generative and combinatorial, and capable of constructing an inexhaustible array of specific mental contents out of these evolved building blocks, there is no risk that the humanities will be subjected to some form of scientistic reductionism. Indeed, because what can be experimentally established is always minute in comparison to the complexity of human experience, the humanities will continue to have at least as much to offer the sciences as the reverse (e.g., by pointing out phenomena, anomalies, overlooked questions, etc.).

Institutional background   Top

UCSB has developed what is arguably the largest and most active community of researchers in this new area in the world. To help give institutional form to this cross-departmental strength, UCSB's Office of Research established the Center for Evolutionary Psychology three years ago (Leda Cosmides and John Tooby are the co-directors). Since then, UCSB has developed the first doctoral programs anywhere to offer training in evolutionary psychology (in two new wings in anthropology and psychology). Other departments are increasingly involved, with a new initiative and faculty recruitment effort by the Economics Department in evolutionary economics, and with strong affiliated programs in such areas as evolutionary biology (UCSB has one of the four highest ranked programs in the nation) and hunter-gatherer archaeology.

This project will allow the Center to increasingly facilitate cross-disciplinary research, providing a series of services to the UCSB community: The Center brings together research teams across departments, and organizes collaborations with researchers at other universities both at a faculty level and graduate student level. In addition to the cognitive science and experimental economics laboratories located in the psychology and anthropology departments, the Center maintains a field station among isolated hunter-horticulturalists in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The purpose of this field station is to provide the UCSB research community with the opportunity to conduct cross-cultural experiments (testing the species-typicality of cognitive programs and behavioral patterns as part of the Human Universals Project) and studies of social interaction in small, face to face communities ecologically more similar to the social milieus in which our minds evolved. The Center also maintains active collaborative relationships with the Center for Neuroscience at UC Davis and the Neuroimaging Laboratory at University College London, where hypotheses developed by Center affiliates (faculty and graduate students) can be tested using neuroscience techniques. Educationally, approximately 14 graduate students (from anthropology, economics, English, and psychology) are conducting their graduate research through the Center, and the Center facilitates undergraduate research through assisting interns and senior thesis research, as well as developing curricular materials. Since its inception, the Center has offered a weekly seminar oriented towards faculty, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates, which as of last quarter developed into the Evolutionary Behavioral and Social Science (EBSS) seminars sponsored by faculty from the EEMB, anthropology, psychology, and economics departments. Beyond UCSB, the Center acts as a worldwide clearinghouse and coordinator for research and education in these emerging areas. Although there are individual scholars of great distinction in this field at other universities, there is no comparable institutionalized center or research community at any other university, and certainly no group that integrates more than two of these six or eight allied fields. The Center has a ten-member advisory board drawn both from a subset of participating UCSB faculty and from researchers at other campuses (e.g., Irven DeVore, Director of the Peabody Museum & Chair, Dept. of Anthropology, Harvard; Paul Ekman, Human Interaction Lab, UCSF; Michael Gazzaniga, Director, Program for Cognitive Neuroscience, Dartmouth, Steven Pinker, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, MIT, Roger Shepard, Dept. of Psychology, Stanford).

Present and Future Funding  Top

With some contrivances, the Center has been able to foster a significant amount of interdisciplinary research, despite the fact that it so far has had no funding of its own. To date, it has been operating on discretionary funds drawn from an NSF Presidential Young Investigator grant to John Tooby, a grant that expires this July. To judge by program officer encouragement, and the intense scholarly interest in the research being produced at the Center, there are increasing signs that both federal and foundation funding might be successfully pursued over the next two years, especially if the Center can maintain or expand its activities.

Participants  Top

The four PIs (Cosmides, Hernadi, Tooby, and Bergstrom) are meant to form an organizational core drawn from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities that will help to coordinate the activities of a far larger and widening circle of interested researchers. Since the preproposal was submitted, a meeting was held among interested faculty from at least eight departments (from the EEMB and psychology in the natural sciences to English and history in the humanities). At this meeting, the RAD proposal was discussed, and a decision was taken to attempt to create a formal graduate emphasis at UCSB in the Evolutionary Behavioral and Social Sciences (EBSS), together with a set of related institutions, such as a weekly seminar series. In addition, some of the other parties likely to be interested in the RAD proposal were approached on a one-on-one basis, as time permitted. Although individuals who have expressed an interest in participating in this project in either or both the EBSS components and the specific research components are too numerous to list, they include Robert Warner, Steve Rothstein, and Jim Reichman from the EEMB (who have been participating since January); and H. Porter Abbott and Robert Erickson (English), Wolf Kittler (Chair, Germanic, Slavic and Semitic Studies), Victoria Vesna (Art), Bert States, Davies King, and -- as time permits -- Simon Williams (Drama, IHC), who have been contacted more recently. Although there are a large number of other interested participants (e.g., Don Zimmerman, Sociology; Napoleon Chagnon, Don Symons, and Don Brown, from Anthropology) we have mentioned these researchers individually in order to address two areas of special concern brought up by the reviewers -- whether members of the life sciences were involved, and whether we intended to include more participants from the humanities generally, and from the fine and performing arts specifically.

Activities  Top

To give the research component an initial focus and momentum, two lines of inquiry will be used to organize the early phases of interdisciplinary collaboration. However, the core group fully anticipates that once the open workshops and initial project phases establish a pattern of regular interchange among researchers who have not previously interacted, new lines of investigation and new research teams will emerge to complement the initial research directions that are being used to ignite interest. Indeed, our experience with potential participants is that even short discussions on these topics lead to the identification of a series of promising ideas and issues to pursue. The two inaugural research projects are:

1. Collective Action  Top

What evolved, species-typical decision-making mechanisms and social emotions underlie our species' zoologically unusual ability to form shifting coalitions or groups of often unrelated individuals that act cooperatively towards common goals (often in opposition to other groups)? Despite intense selection pressures for winning access to disputed resources such as mates, members of very few other species appear to be able to solve what economists identify as the game theoretic or evolutionary obstacles to the emergence of collective action (free-rider problems, coordination problems, information-limitation problems, etc.). This reseach thread involves experiments at the psychological level, aimed at elucidating the computational machinery that guides when one construes the self as a member of a cooperating group or coalition, and how one reasons about such situations; studies at the population level, using the methods of experimental economics to illuminate the online dynamics of group cooperation when individuals actually interact; game theoretic modeling of group cooperation (with and without family and kinship elements), to discover the nature of the selection pressures that emerge when individuals cooperate in groups larger than two; and field studies of coalitional cooperation at the CEP field site in Ecuador (e.g., among the Shiwiar and Achuar peoples). For example, how does perceived membership in coalitions affect the activation of decision rules that regulate cooperation, defection, and punishment in dynamic interactions? Since the question of the nature of collective identities is a prominent feature in much recent discourse in the humanities, it is hoped that this research theme will benefit from input from participants from literature, history, and related fields. In addition to the research itself, the participants envision a series of workshops led by Bergstrom and other UCSB economists on how to apply game theory and other tools from economics to evolutionary questions and small group dynamics.

2. Discursive Universals  Top

How do evolved cognitive universals explain or participate in discursive universals? In earlier work, Hernadi identified four combinable modes of discourse as possibly universal building blocks of literary works (thematic, lyric, narrative, or dramatic) -- modes that also occur in oral cultures that transmit proverbs, songs, stories, and public rituals from one generation to the next. The extent to which various discursive modes and strategies are in fact universal, and the extent to which their wide-spread occurrence relies on biological conditions of intelligibility rather than semiotic/hermeneutic conditions of communicability will be explored rather than presupposed.

One of the additional topics that the participants wish to explore is the relationship between the evolved structure of specialized memory systems, such as episodic memory, and the structure of discourse and narrative. Memory and neuroscience research has established that humans automatically and nonconsciously organize their experience into bounded units, with the boundaries being established by changes in location, time, interactants, social variables, and other similar factors, even though the underlying "objective" reality is continuous. A related question is the extent to which the memory and representational systems implicated in discourse are specialized to deal with social entities and events (agents and social collectivities) rather than the physical world.

Another anticipated collaboration involves bringing humanists familiar with various cultural media and traditions together with anthropologists, psychologists, and biologists to explore the wide-spread human tendency to respond with incipient or fully-fledged tears or laughter to the "thrilling" or "gratifying" entertainment provided by staged, narrated, and filmed fiction. This brings up the broader question of what an understanding of the growing inventory of known, cross-culturally universal emotional adaptations, such as sexual jealousy, romantic love, or grief may offer to humanists.

This leads to more difficult and perplexing questions concerning (1) the extent to which the human ability to imagine fictive worlds evolved as an aspect of the social task of constructing representations of the unknown intentions of others, or as a way of prompting the imaginative contemplation of alternatives to a person's or culture's primary assumptions about reality; and (2) more broadly, why have humans evolved aesthetic sentiments, capacities, and appetites at all?

We hope to pursue not only the coalitional questions empirically and experimentally, but also, where the questions can be posed precisely enough (as with episodic memory or the impact of laughter or grief), the humanistic questions as well. We have a number of techniques available, including cognitive experiments (involving, e.g., inference or memory), social psychological and experimental economics approaches, and the assay of changes in cortisol, testosterone, and estradiol, through analysis of saliva samples. Where protocols can be developed, some of these issues could be explored cross-culturally at the field site, or through cognitive neuroscience techniques.

Educational Initiatives  Top

In addition to the research component, one educational component of this initiative will be to formalize a new graduate emphasis in this area at UCSB. A second is to pursue a similar formalization of a joint program with UCLA. To date, over two dozen faculty at UCSB and UCLA have expressed an interest in forming an interdisciplinary graduate program, perhaps jointly between UCSB and UCLA, in the Evolutionary Behavioral and Social Sciences (EBSS). The increasing interest from faculty in the humanities suggests that this initiative be broadened to reflect their participation and perspective as well.

Electronic Presence  Top

A second educational component will be the development of a web site that contains a hypertext map of the constituent fields and their conceptual interconnections; key references with annotations; on-line tutorials; on-line cognitive experiments; virtual interactive models of cognitive structures -- a specified "virtual brain" containing what is known about these mechanisms. The site will also serve as a mechanism for the researchers involved to make their research easily retrievable by their colleagues in the group (a password-protected area of the site restricted to project participants); and as a way for the members of the research team to make their results publicly available through electronic publishing.


Evolution and the Social Mind