April 15, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Is Darwinism Useful Explaining Cognition?

One would think the evolution of mind involves a straightforward account of improving cognition as one progresses up the evolutionary tree.  It’s not so simple, said two researchers in a Nature essay:1 

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is broadly accepted among biologists, but its implications for the study of cognition are far from clear.  Few within the scientific pale would argue against the proposition that life on Earth has evolved and that this general principle can be extended to the process of thought.  But in taking an evolutionary approach, biologists have tended to assume that species with shared ancestry will have similar cognitive abilities, and that the evolutionary history of traits can be used to reveal how we and other animals perform certain mental tasks.  A closer analysis suggests things aren’t so simple.

Johan Bolhuis, a biologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and Clive Wynne, a psychologist at the University of Florida, asked, “Can evolution explain how minds work?”  It’s not that they were denying Darwinism and Darwin’s insights – it’s just that there are no simple evolutionary explanations for the observations, and the explanations provided are not all that helpful in guiding research.  Some birds, for instance, are better at cognitive tasks than chimpanzees.  It appears that convergence is more important than common ancestry and natural selection.
    Don’t we want to understand functions and causes more than some tale of an animal’s evolutionary history, anyway?  These questions are intertwined, they claimed; “It is unclear, however, what an analysis of the evolutionary history of cognitive behaviours could add to our understanding of how they work, even if such an analysis were possible.”  So it’s not only incredibly difficult to come up with an evolutionary analysis, it’s not clear it would help.  Their conclusion warns against Darwinist na�vet�:

We are not suggesting an abandonment of Darwin’s insights.  Rather, we call for care in their application.  When reconstructing the evolutionary history of cognitive traits, there is no a priori reason to assume that convergence will be more important than common descent or vice versa.  In addition, evolutionary theory may suggest hypotheses about the mechanisms of cognition, but it cannot be used to actually study these mechanisms.
    As long as researchers focus on identifying human-like behaviour in other animals, the job of classifying the cognition of different species will be forever tied up in thickets of arbitrary nomenclature that will not advance our understanding of the mechanisms of cognition.  For comparative psychology to progress, we must study animal and human minds empirically, without naive evolutionary presuppositions.


1.  Johan J. Bolhuis and Clive D. L. Wynne, “Can evolution explain how minds work?”, Nature 458, 832-833 (16 April 2009) | doi:10.1038/458832a.

Can anyone find a reason in this article to waste precious scientific resources on evolutionary explanations?  Rescuing Eugenie Scott and Ken Miller from embarrassment doesn’t count.  A little red flush would look becoming (11/03/2006 commentary).  They could use a change of face (03/03/2009 commentary).  About face.

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Categories: Birds, Human Body, Mammals

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