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Alternatives to the SSSM

When it comes to arguing against the SSSM there are two approaches. One is to observe and document the fact of human universals. The other is to deduce from other principles that human universals must exist. The first of these involves clearing away the spectrum illusion and pointing out the human universals are the rule and not the exception. We will refer to this approach as the universalist approach. [Brown1991] takes the universalist approach, and so do many psychologists studying human cognition.

The other approach is to deduce from other principles that the nature of culture and learning could not be as the behaviorists assume. This is the view of the Evolutionary Psychologists (EP). An understanding of how and why behaviors evolve or persist through millions of years of evolution forces us, they say, to deduce a relationship between mind and culture in which culture is more the product of the mind than the other way around.

It is important to note that every Evolutionary Psychologist is, strictly speaking, a universalist as well, since EP entails human universals. However, we will use the term ``universalist'' to mean ``universalist but not Evolutionary Psychologist''.

Another way to characterize the difference is that Evolutionary Psychologists (EPers) believe that it is not only possible and reasonable to talk about human nature when trying to understand society and culture, but that it is inevitable that the nature of evolution will make human nature an overwhelming determinant of culture. Universalists point out for all to see there simply are important universals of human culture and mind. Cognitive psychologists, linguists and more recently some anthropologists are at a minimum universalists. They have been demonstrating that there are many things about mental operations that are a part of human nature.

Some universalists, most notably Noam Chomsky, take an anti-EP position; [Pinker and Bloom1992] and especially [Dennett1995] review Chomsky's position extensively. Other universalists maintain a public neutrality on EP where they can. That is, they choose to commit themselves to the minimum necessary to argue their individual case. Because they tend to be silent on the matter, it is difficult to identify them.

Even if there is disagreement among the anti-SSSM squad about these approaches, they each draw well from each other. There is also a division that can be made between the EPers. There is strong EP and weak EP. The strong EPers believe that our understanding of evolution should drive our theory construction about human nature. The weak ones believe that at a minimum any theory about human nature should not be evolutionarily implausible. The caution that the weak ones exercise is because stories about what can and can't evolve are too easy to construct.

Danny Kaye once described an oboe as ``an ill wind that nobody blows good.'' Much the same could be said--and with some justice--of teleological explanations in psychology. There is an irresistible temptation to argue that the organization that one's favorite cognitive theory attributes to the mind is the very organization that the mind ought to have, given its function. One knows that such arguments are, in the nature of the case, post hoc; one knows that the cognitive theories they presuppose invariably come unstuck, leaving the teleologist with a functional explanation for mental structures that don't exist; one knows that there are, in general, lots of mechanisms that can perform a given task... One knows all this; but the temptation persists. p. 207 [Fodor1990b]

And the temptation surely does persist. The above quotation is the introductory paragraph to a essay in which Fodor gives a teleological account of his theory of mind! The general view seems to be that these sorts of accounts are acceptable only if they are properly labeled as speculation or ``Just-So Stories''.

next up previous
Next: Impact on management Up: The Standard Social Sciences Previous: Cognitive constraints

Mon Sep 8 18:21:39 BST 1997