Monday, January 06, 2014

the evolution and function of cognition

human-nature | An evolutionary thrust in psychology began with Darwin and Romanes with their respective classics on the expression of the emotions (Darwin, 1872) and the evolution of mentality throughout the animal kingdom (Romanes, 1882, 1883, 1888), was maintained in comparative psychology through to the mid-20th century, and then practically died in the first cognitive revolution. Aside from Bruner and Piaget, influential figures associated with the classical computational model of the mind, such as Chomsky and Fodor, took the view that evolutionary theory was of scant importance to cognitive science. In the past decade or so, an evolutionary perspective has re-emerged in psychology as a programme that terms itself 'Evolutionary Psychology', associated with names such as Buss, Cosmides, Pinker and Tooby. This is, I suggest, an unfortunate appropriation to a relatively narrow set of concerns and claims about the nature of the 'human mind' of what should be a generic term for the application of evolutionary thinking in psychology. One can be an evolutionary psychologist without being an Evolutionary Psychologist.

Goodson is such a psychologist. He has produced a quite monumental work in a remarkably short space that defies adequate summary in the much shorter space appropriate here. I shall, instead, be somewhat critical of what I take to be a flawed masterpiece. I feel that I open myself somewhat to a charge of arrogance in doing this, and that I am perhaps being somewhat mean-spirited here. So let me start out by saying that this is a 'must read' piece of work. I would take positive issue with the cover blurb that sees it as 'appropriate as a textbook for undergraduate and postgraduate courses'. It is much more than that. It is a most thoughtful consideration of how mental abilities could be explored from an evolutionary perspective. It draws on over 100 years of empirical work. It will reintroduce students of any level to the contributions of Brentano, Ebbinghaus, Wundt, Thorndike, Jennings, Sherrington, Kohler, Lashley, Bartlett, Lorenz, and Thorpe, amongst others: work they may nowadays be unaware of. It will contextualize the evolutionary relevance of work by more contemporary contributors such as Gordon Bower, Donald Broadbent, Michael Posner, and Martin Seligman, again amongst others whom they should know about. It is 'appropriate to undergraduates' only if you have put them through a thorough grounding in contemporary work on the psychology of learning, a thorough introduction to the history of psychology, additional courses in philosophy and cognitive science, and then posed to them the question: 'So, what does it all mean, then?'. It is after having posed that question that Goodson's book becomes a 'must read'.

First, Goodson begins at the beginning of evolution, outlining the issues that a form of organisation that is alive has to contend with. Here we get introduced to his emphasis on the 'function of cognition'. Living things only continue to 'do their thing' within relatively tight margins beyond which they cannot maintain their equilibrium and consequently revert to being non-living things. Hence his 'Fundamental Postulate of Process':
All overt or covert activity serves the immediate function of impelling the organism toward equilibrium (p.46)
This might appear to be stating the obvious until one asks 'how does this happen?'. And it is dealing with this question that primarily occupies Goodson in this book. To restore something to equilibrium requires, crudely, that an organism can detect what it is currently lacking and how it can then rectify the situation. An organism has to become a focussed time-tripper, continuously monitoring its internal situation and prioritising the information it immediately receives from its environment so as to behave in a way that will restabilize its internal situation on this dimension, and thus reprioritise its interests in the information it subsequently picks up. And to do that it has to evolve appropriate detection abilities so as to detect what Gregory Bateson called 'information': 'the difference that makes a difference'.