Apr 20, 2020

Our Modern Skulls House A Stone Age Mind

The phrase above appears in Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. It is one of the Five Principles of Evolutionary Psychology they identify.

They argue that natural selection is the process that designed our brain and that natural selection takes a long time to design a circuit of any complexity. The time we are talking about is beyond our comprehension and it is measured in hundreds of thousands of years. Cosmides and Tooby  posit that the environment that humans and human minds evolved was very different from our modern environment. Our ancestors lived most of their evolutionary history in hunter – gatherer societies, which means that our ancestors lived in small, nomadic bands of a few dozen individuals who all got their food each day by gathering plants or by hunting animals. Cosmides and Tooby write that our ancestors were on "a camping trip that lasted their entire lifetime."

This way of living lasted for the last 10 million years, with agriculture and the end of a nomadic lifestyle only appearing on earth about 10,000 years ago. And, only in the last 5000 years when the human population moved to farming rather than hunting and gathering. What they concluded is that natural selection being such a slow process, there haven't been enough generations for it to design circuits that are well adapted to our current industrial life. They conclude, that our modern skulls house a stone age mind the circuits that were created in the first 10 million years were designed to solve the problems of that environment, not to solve the day-to-day problems of our modern lifestyle. The stone age mind can solve some problems extremely well, but does poorly with others. It has been estimated that most hunter gatherer groups were no larger than 150 people, with the majority being much smaller. Imagine the stone age mind, having learned to adapt to a small group of 50 - to-150 individuals, living in the city with thousands upon thousands of people that he or she would have to interact with.

The information processing systems that evolved in the first 3 million years of  hominin evolution solved adaptive problems of that environment, of the ancestral environments in which the human line evolved. Therefore, evolutionary psychology is  "relentlessly past oriented."

Conclusion: The cognitive mechanisms that currently exist because they solved problems efficiently in the past will not necessarily generate adaptive behavior in the present.

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