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April 2018


Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking by Cecilia Heyes

Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of ThinkingCognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking by Cecilia Heyes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All in all a fantastic book. And obviously correct in its conclusions (meaning that I agree). The book sets out to show how recent human evolution (last 300 000 thousand years, at least) to a large degree has taken place in the cultural realm rather than in the biological realm. According to Heyes, we don’t only learn facts, but also what she terms “cognitive gadgets” – thinking tools such as reading, reasoning, how to imitate and how to “mind read”. These abilities have evolved over time, meaning that the difference between people a few thousand years ago and people today are in that these “cognitive gadgets” have evolved, not our biology. To my mind, this is blindingly obvious, but it’s nice to see the alternative arguments countered in such a well-informed and scholarly way. But the claim is actually even more expansive than that, that also some human universals are learned, not genetically inherited, such as language and “mind reading”. If there is any shortcoming in the book (and why I gave four stars instead of five) it is that the refutation of counterarguments is so prominently featured and Heyes own theory less well explained. How do you test it, how do you study the evolution of “cognitive gadgets” and in what way is it not just regular history of ideas? I would have liked to see a more expansive presentation of such issues. But all in all, this is probably one of the most important books on evolution and cultural evolution to be published in recent years, to be read by anyone interested in these issues. I, for one, will happily bury “evolutionary psychology” and all its excesses. Welcome instead “cultural evolutionary psychology”.

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