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Perceptual Adaptations
Cognitive Adaptations
A Tentative Compendium
    (under construction 20 February 2000)

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It is with some trepidation I present this page, the table of contents of several pages on cognitive adaptations, since any claim concerning human nature and society must be contentious, and may have real-world consequences that were not intended or desired. I would therefore like to emphasize at the outset that the adaptationist claim--the claim that human cognitive abilities have come about through a natural process of evolution--is not a determinist claim, though it frequently involves a motivational component. In a sense, cognitive structures lie in between the notion of a tool that can be picked up at will and a causal chain that is ineluctable: there is a causal chain, or a tangle rather of interacting causes, but there are many places in the causal chains that permit a pause. Such a pause may be compared to a doubtful decision at one level of operation being suspended and passed to a more subtle or inclusive level. The notion of ethics implies precisely such an indecision, and the presentation of accounts of human nature and society are ethically loaded acts.

At stake is the question of whether a claim about evolved cognitive structures carries implications of the insignificance or even impossibility of such cognitive suspensions. Now, some perceptual adaptations appear in fact to be almost entirely automated, and it is important to note that the unease concerning biological determinism is almost exclusively directed towards cognitive functions that in the first place are not fully automated. Thus, we are not unsettled by the idea that digestion is an evolved physiological process, or even that the capacity for hearing is, since the conscious mind never had a claim on these processes, which take place as it were hidden from view. It is just as clear, however, that we do tend to get upset at the suggestion that processes normally considered to be under the purview of the conscious mind are somehow circumscribed as cognitive adaptations. Describing people as if they were animals--whom we have much less difficulty accepting are products of a long and complex process of natural variation and selection--seems somehow demeaning, and is frequently resisted as if it were a social move, an attempt to upstage, a claim that ultimately will serve to justify control. The evolutionary claim is thus perceived as an attempt at domination. Ultimately, however, the issue is not one of domination but of facing a large number of facts, which point strongly in the direction of an evolutionary history. This in itself should hardly be threatening; we are free to begin the task of integrating these results with other aspects of our lives.

Since it is implausible that a full understanding of the mind is possible even in principle--how can a system define its own extent and grasp the totality of itself?--the unease at deterministic explanations should be somewhat moderated. Nevertheless, I believe there is a genuine issue at stake--what for the lack of a better name I have named the Quixotic effect, or the tendency of people to enact and carry out descriptions of human nature and society that they believe may be true. The danger, in this view, is not the act of cataloguing cognitive adaptations, as it is the purpose of this page to begin, but to perceive such a list as a normative account, a description that can appropriately function as a program of action. Seen in a broader view, the Quixotic effect is widespread, and not limited to the domain of biological accounts of human cognition; the underlying danger is not biology but the tendency to confuse the description for reality.

The following list is incomplete and only partially implemented; the sections on adaptions relevant to the family and to society are currently in progress, and may remain so for a while. In the mean time, it may function as a sketch of the kinds of adaptations to keep an eye out for; I would be happy to receive suggestions.

January, 1997

Some dimensions of human cognitive adaptions
(links refer to the glossary):

The aim is to examine each proposed adaptation in all seven dimensions

Perceptual (general and by sensory modality)

Conceptual (by core domain) Family life Social adaptations

Non-verbal communicaton

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Perceptual Adaptations
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© 1998 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles