In a recent interview* Professor Cecilia Heyes told me that the goal of her book "Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking" is to ask why human lives are “so strange, relative to those of other animals.” She particularly wants to understand why our minds seem to be so different from that of other animals. Heyes has spent her career as a cognitive psychologist studying phenomena such as learning, so-called “mind reading,” and imitation because many scientists have assumed that humans have inherited innate abilities in these areas.
Professor Heyes challenges long-held assumptions about these abilities by describing the evidence that these skills are actually acquired gradually by learning from the culture around us. Thus she proposes a distinction between a cognitive gadget, which is a cognitive skill acquired via cultural learning and the better known cognitive instinct, which is assumed to be innate.
The most obvious example of a cognitive gadget is reading since written language clearly appeared too recently (about 5,000 years ago) to have become part of our genetic make up. In contrast, “mind-reading,” imitation, and language are often assumed to be cognitive instincts.
This book is academic and evidence focused. Heyes takes the reader through quite a few technical details before embarking on a detailed discussion of the evidence that these skills are in fact cognitive gadgets, acquired via learning from the culture around us. Her discussion of language is particularly compelling because she came to language as a neutral outsider and actually expected it to stand up as an example of a cognitive instinct. If you still think language is an instinct this is a good introduction to the evidence that it is actually a cognitive gadget.
The implication that many of our most distinctive cognitive skills are culturally acquired has several important implications. First, it means that there are actually three important factors to consider when studying our cognitive abilities: nature, nurture, and culture. We are not stuck with “Stone Age” minds as evolutionary psychologists often claim, but our cognitives skills may be more fragile than is generally imagined.
Cognitive Gadgets is not aimed at the general reader, but its ideas are clearly presented and thought-provoking. It should be read by everyone who is interested in cognitive psychology.
*You can find my Brain Science interview with Professor Heyes at brainsciencepodcast.com.