CogWeb index
 (under construction 15 March 2001)

The actual domain of a conceptual module is "all the information in the organismís environment that may (once processed by perceptual modules, and possibly by other conceptual modules) satisfy the moduleís input conditions" (Sperber 1994:51-2). Compare actual function, proper domain, cultural domain.

The actual funtion of a cognitive mechanism is everything that the mechanism actually does, which typically differs from but overlaps with what it was designed to do. See proper function.

Adaptive lag: describes cases where the rate at which an organism adapts to its environment is slower than the rate of environmental change, leading to a mismatch; thus, Evolutionary Psychology suggests that human psychological mechanisms are largely evolved solutions to adaptive problems in the remote past, termed the EEA. Also called phenotypic lag.

Affordances: In implicit pedagogy, the notion that in the learning mode, people perceive objects and events in ways that allow them to define suitable learning situations; cf. Gibson 1986.

Ancestral environment: see Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA).

Autopoiesis (Gr. self-making). In implicit pedagogy, those activities of the child that have as their primary objective the improvement of the child's motoric, perceptual, emotional, and conceptual organization.

Cognition has come to be used as a general term for information processing. This broad definition means that sensory organs such as eyes and ears, emotions such as shame and desire, physiologically based drives such as hunger and tiredness, and reflex actions such as blinking when an object is suddenly brought close to the eyes are all considered cognitive adaptations. Abstract thinking, such as reasoning and imagination, more obviously falls under this category. Cf. Distributed Cognition.

Cognitively impenetrable: said of cognitive processes that are not open to introspection, that is, that are not available to phenomenological awareness (consciousness).

The cultural domain of a conceptual module is the culturally generated information purposefully fashioned to satisfy the module's input conditions. A cognitive adaptation has a set of input conditions stemming from past interactions with its proper domain. Cultural forms that meet these conditions are readily apprehended, which encourages their production. Thus, a cognitive adaptation "stimulates in every culture the production and distribution of a wide array of information that meets its input conditions" (Sperber 1994). The cultural domain forms part of a module's actual domain. Because its spread is technically parasitic (an unfortunate term for such a useful phenomenon) upon the proper function of an adaptation, it is often referred to as epidemiological.

Culture. See universal metaculture, evoked culture, and epidemiological culture.

Distributed Cognition. The notion, expounded by Clark 1997 and others, that cognitive processes do not simply take place inside people's heads but is distributed between people and in the environment. As Millikan 1993 puts it, "I no more carry my complete cognitive systems around with me as I walk from place to place than I carry the U.S. currency system about with me when I walk around with a dime in my pocket" (170).

EEA, the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, also sometimes called the Ancestral Environment, refers to the environment in which human cognitive structures evolved; generally, the Pleistocene (from two million years ago to historical times), in small bands of hunter-gatherers.

Since various cognitive structures evolved over very different time scales--for instance, the object cognition ability may be close to a hundred million years old, while the theory of mind developed during the last few million years--the relevant EEA will vary for each adaptation. For the adaptations that are specifically human--those that are not shared even by our closest relatives, the great apes--the EEA is more clearly defined as the last five to six million years; since there was a dramatic increase in brain size about two million years ago, the majority of cognitive adaptations may have taken place since then, in the Pleistocene.

The geographical location of the EEA is a matter of some dispute. On the one hand, the major evolutionary steps that led from Homo Erectus to modern humans are widely though to have taken place in Africa (the "out of Africa" model). On the other hand, already Home Erectus had settled the southern parts of Europe and Asia, and according to the "thousand points of lights" (multiregional) model, gene flows between these populations and the African populations may have contributed to the evolution of modern humans.

In "The Past Explains the Present," Tooby and Cosmides define the EEA as "a statistical composite of the adaption-relevant properties of the ancestral environment encountered by a member of ancestral populations, weighted by their frequency and fitness consequences." Michael Cashdan's  definition is "a multivariate and dynamic niche-space that mathematically describes selection pressures on evolving humans."

The term EEA was introduced by John Bowlby in the 1969 classic Attachment and Loss (London, Hogarth Press). For a recent discussion, see Foley, Robert (1995-96). The Adaptive Legacy of Human Evolution:  A Search for the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. Evolutionary Anthropology 4(6): 194-203.

EES, or Evolutionary Stable Strategy; a term coined by John Maynard Smith. Joining game theory to ethology, he argued that in any conflict between animals, the payoff to each individual depends on the strategies adopted by the others; thus, a stable strategy is one that cannot be displaced by any other over the long term. Cf. tit for tat.

Empiricism: the notion that all knowledge is acquired from the senses; as a research program, an emphasis on data collection and inductive reasoning, rather than deductive reasoning from first principles. Contrast rationalism. For a discussion, see Empiricism.

Epidemiological culture, said in reference to a cognitive adaptation, is those aspects of cultural forms that are environmentally variable and do not belong to the adaptation's proper domain (Sperber 1994). Computers are part of epidemiological culture, since their construction and use is undertaken by cognitive capacities which did not achieve their form because of an evolutionary history of past successes with computers. Contrast universal metaculture and evoked culture.

Episodic memory refers to memories you have of temporal episodes, or instances of actually learning something; for instance, you may have an episodic memory of what you were doing when Kennedy was assassinated. Contrast with semantic memory.

Evoked culture, said in reference to a cognitive adaptation, is those aspects of cultural forms that are environmentally variable, but belong to the adaptation's proper domain (Tooby and Cosmides 1992). A native language is part of evoked culture, since learning it is part of the proper domain of the language acquisition device. Contrast universal metaculture and epidemiological culture.

Evolutionary Psychology: the study of panhuman cognitive structures; in contrast, see sociobiology. For an overview, see Evolutionary Psychology: An Integrated Approach.

Executive mode: In implicit pedagogy, the frame of mind in which the child or adult deals witht he world in a realistic manner to achieve pragmatic goals. Contrast learning mode.

Frame problem: in Artificial Intelligence, the problem that arises when a robotic system is being designed to utilize information picked up by sensors from the environment. Since sensory input can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, the robot must be programmed with an interpretive "frame" to access usable aspects of the information. The problem is related to Hume's Problem of Induction, the central objection to pure empiricism. In analytic philosophy, Quine (1960) has argued communication and language acquisition is not possible without a set of framing assumptions; Gadamer (1975) makes a related point in the notion of the hermeneutic circle (cf. "Our relation to the both dynamic and reciprocal.... The hermeneutic circle does not permit access or escape to an uninterpreted reality; but we do not keep going around in the same path" (Herrnstein Smith (1994):151-2): and Markman (1989) draws on experimental psychology to make a similar argument about children's ability to categorize (cf. the discussion in Object Perception). The notion is used in evolutionary psychology to argue for the necessity of evolved cognitive structures (Tooby & Cosmides 1992); for an extension of this argument, see The Sociobiological Fallacy.

Handicap principle: the idea, first proposed by Zahavi, that expensive adaptations such as a peacock's tail have evolved precisely because they constitute a handicap to survival: they are luxuries that only the most fit individuals can afford, and thus function as a signal that cannot be faked. Runaway selection is an alternative account; for a discussion, see the Sexual selection page.

Imitation: "intentional behavior that aims to reproduce the intentional behavior of others" (Michael Tomasello).

Implicit pedagogy: the notion that natural selection has constructed cogntive systems whose proper function it is to aid in the construction of other cognitive systems by structuring, motivating, and creating opportunities for learning. Cf. affordances, autopoiesis, learning mode.

Learning mode: In implicit pedagogy, the frame of mind in which autopoiesis takes place, typically characterized by pretense. Cf. executive mode.

Lexical matrix: the combinatorial universe of the phonetic set. If we set a limit to the length of strings at ten phonemes, the lexical matrix contains a billion billion strings. The utilized strings constitute the mental dictionary.

Meaning: the direct grasp (whatever that is) of relations, including relations between symbolic systems. The meaning of "tree" is a series of mentalese representations. Since relations are inexhaustible, meaning is potentially infinite; since the computation of relations carry a processing cost, meaning at any point is actually finite (Derrida's notion of meaning being characterized by an "infinite deferral" would entail an infinite cost).

Mental dictionary consists of all the words (phonetic strings) that mean something to us. It permits the translation of incoming sounds and written words into meaning, as well as the reverse translation of meaning into words. The mental dictionary also associates grammatical information with each entry.

Mentalese: the hypothesized systems of representation utilized for communication within the brain/mind; the language of meaning, or "the language of thought".

Module: a functionally specialized cognitive adaptation. For a discussion see Does Adaptationism Imply Modularity?

Morpheme: the smallest unit of meaning in a word.

Phenotypic lag: See Adaptive lag.

Phoneme: a unit of sound, formed in the phonetic matrix.

Phonetic matrix: the combinatorial universe of vocal articulations (see Pinker p. 170). The utilized phonemes constitute the phonetic set.

Phonetic set: the set of significant sounds in a language. English, for instance, has forty-four phonemes, about half of which are represented by individual letters in the alphabet.

Pretense. A cognitive adaptation to enable learning, pretense relies on the creative use of affordances in the environment, in others, and in oneself to solve problems of training. See implicit pedagogy.

The proper domain of a cognitive module is "all the information that it is the moduleís biological function to process" (Sperber 1994:52), loosely the set of problems it was designed to solve (see proper function). Compare actual domain and cultural domain. The proper domain of the desire for sweet foods--a "sweet tooth"--is ripe fruit; its actual domain may be chocholate bars. While solutions to problems in the proper domain led on average to fitness benefits in the EEA, this may not hold for the actual domain today.

Proper function: the function a mechanism was designed to solve, by virtue of its past successes (Millikan 1984, 1993). A mechanism with a proper function need not fulfill that function, even on average. The proper function (in Millikan's terms, simply the function) of a heart is to pump blood even though the heart may fail to do so due to some congenital defect; moreover, the proper function of a sperm's tail is to propel the sperm to an egg even though only a minute fraction of well-formed sperm tails ever successfully complete that function (Millikan, 1993). Defective hearts and sperm tails that miss their mark have the proper functions they do, not by virtue their current shape or behavior, but by virtue of the past successes of ancestral hearts and sperm tails in carrying out that function. See actual function, actual domain, proper domain.

Rationalism: a method of enquiry that privileges deductive reasoning over sensory experience. In its extreme formulation epistemological rationalism is the belief that all the truths of physical science and even history can in principle be discovered by pure thinking and set forth as the consequences of self-evident premises; such premises were sometimes held to be innate in the mind. Ethical rationalism holds that the primary moral ideas (good, duty) are innate, and the first principles of morals (e.g., the Golden Rule of ethics) self-evident. Cf. empiricism and the frame problem.

Retrovirus:Transcription is the process by which genetic information in DNA is converted into RNA, and reverse transcription, involving the enzyme reverse transcriptase, is the synthesis of complementary DNA from an RNA template. Retroviruses are single-stranded RNA viruses that have the enzyme reverse transcriptase, and with this enzyme the viral RNA is used as a template to produce viral DNA from cell-host material. This DNA is then incorporated into the host cell's genome, where it codes for the synthesis of viral components. The incorporated DNA sequences and the viral components they express have thus become "endogenous".

Runaway selection: the idea, first proposed by Fisher, that once certain traits become associated with mate value, sexual selection for these traits can go into runaway mode. Suppose that there is one gene that makes peahens - that's the female of peacock - like males with big tails, and another that causes males to have big tails. If there is a preponderance of females that carries this gene, then males with big tails will have more offspring even if they have less chance of surviving because of their visibility to predators. But because a male with a big tail is likely to be the son of a female who likes big tails, this success will also tend to spread the gene for big-tail preference. An alternative to Zahavi's handicap principle. For a discussion, see the Sexual selection page.

Semantic memory refers to explicit knowledge of the world that you have without any recollection of where or when you acquired it; for instance, you know flamingoes are pink, but probably not the situation in which you learned this. Contrast with episodic memory.

Sociobiology: the idea that human behavior can be understood in terms of an attempt to maximize inclusive reproductive fitness. For a discussion, see the sociobiological fallacy page. Later versions of sociobiology moved in the direction of evolutionary psychology; for a recent contribution to the debate, see Gould on adaptationism.

Spandrels: in the evolutionary debate, Stephen J. Gould's (1996) proposed name for functional features that arise as initially fortuitous dimensions to an adaptation, as an effect of orders not relevant to the problem solved by the adaptation. For a discussion, see Gould on adaptationism.

Structural Learning: a process of exploration (1), leading to the development of strategies (2), which are assigned levels of confidence and probability of success (3).

  1. The development of a new skill creates a new possibility space for action, defined both by the skill itself and by the environment in which it is developed
  2. This possibility space is exploited to develop coherent strategies of action -- strategies that are tailored to the kinds of challenges the environment presents
  3. Practice causes largely unconscious changes in the distributions of associations that regulate the choice of strategies (Siegler 1986)

Fictive as well as historical narratives can be helpful in exploring the possibility space of a new skill by developing a variety of socially embedded strategies. The structural learning hypothesis of fiction states that even when stories are fictional, they can lead to largely unconscious changes in the distributions of associations that regulate the choice of strategies in real life.

Teleonomy: an idea in biology that dates from Colin Pittendrigh in 1958 in the Roe and Simpson edited volume Behavior and Evolution. Pittendrigh wrote:

The concept became centrally important in biology around 1961, with the (genuinely classic) volume 26 of the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology, Cellular Regulatory Mechanisms.  In his "Opening Address:  The teleonomic significance of biosynthetic control mechanisms," Bernard Davis wrote: The word got put permanently into the biological lexicon perhaps most because Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob used it in their final address at this 1961 meeting:  "General Conclusions:  Teleonomic mechanisms in cellular metabolism, growth, and differentiation" (ibid, 389-401).

The central feature of teleonomy, as opposed to teleology, is that what are now called "ultimate" (i.e., evolutionary) processes of natural selection endow organisms with internal mechanisms ("proximal" mechanisms) that act to establish and preserve end states that arise through sequences of steps. The classical examples are embryonic development and, in microbiology, the regulation of enzymatic metabolism. Thus, the organism does not suddenly produce its final anatomy, as theories of preformationism held.  Instead, development and metabolic regulation proceed stepwise over time.

Contributed by Tim Perper, PhD,

Tit for tat: in the game-theoretical model, the strategy that is required for cooperative behavior to emerge as an evolutionary stable strategy. The rule is simple: cooperate on the first encounter; thereafter, do whatever your opponent did in the previous round.

Umwelt: the world as perceived by an organism (Uexküll, 1982 [1940]; see Hoffmeyer, 1997). For an attempt to reproduce the umwelt of a bee, frog, pigeon and sea turtle, see Barnard, 2001 (external).

Universal metaculture is those aspects of culture that recur cross-culturally because of human species-level adaptations (Tooby and Cosmides 1992). For example, facial expressions for a range of emotions, the ability to learn a language, and an interest in sex form part of universal metaculture, or of the culture of the Universal People (Brown 1991). Universal metaculture belongs to the proper domain of human cognitive adaptations. See also evoked culture and epidemiological culture.

Word: an entry in the mental dictionary, stored in the form of a string of phonemes (organized into morphemes) and an arbitrarily associated meaning (Pinker 1994).

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© 1997 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles