Anthropomorphism and the Evolution of Cognition

By Mithen, Stephen; Boyer, Pascal | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Anthropomorphism and the Evolution of Cognition


Mithen, Stephen, Boyer, Pascal, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Pascal Boyer provides a persuasive argument for what makes anthropomorphism natural: the very fact that it is counter-intuitive (J. Roy. anthrop. Inst. (N.S.) 2, 83-97). Drawing on recent research in developmental psychology concerning domain-specific mental modules, he suggests that ideas about anthropomorphic entities are pervasive in human culture because, while they exhibit sufficient counter-intuitive assumptions to make them attention-grabbing, they also have sufficient 'intuitive background' to have inferential potential; in other words, they are easy to grasp. Consequently anthropomorphism is a pervasive, perhaps universal, way of thinking. This argument depends upon the human mind having a set of ontological categories and domain-specific principles which constitute an 'intuitive ontology'.

To support this, Boyer makes a gesture towards evolutionary theory: 'There are good evolutionary arguments', he states, 'for assuming that natural selection would have equipped human minds with a variety of domain-specific conceptual categories, each carrying strong prior assumptions about its domain of application, rather than an all-purpose and unconstrained form of general intelligence' (p. 86). This is quite correct; the 'good evolutionary argument' is that those individuals who applied specific ways of thinking to specific adaptive problems would be at a selective advantage (Cosmides & Tooby 1994). But this is exactly the opposite of how Boyer argues that people actually think they apply ways of thinking to inappropriate domains. As a consequence, we find people who believe that mountains breath and that trees can listen. According to the 'good evolutionary arguments' such individuals would have been selected against long ago in our evolutionary past. So how can this 'good evolutionary argument', and the evidence for how people think, be compatible with each other?

A resolution of this apparent contradiction can be found by drawing on evidence from the archaeological and fossil records concerning the evolution of the human mind, and more specifically, concerning anthropomorphic thinking. If we consider the time period after 250,000 years ago there were several types of 'Early Humans' living in Africa, Europe and Asia. These were large-brained hominids, evolutionary descendants of H. erectus, the best known of which was H. neanderthalensis. Although Neanderthals are unlikely to have been direct ancestors of modern humans, they are likely to have been cognitively and behaviourally similar to the rather less well known archaic H. sapiens in Africa, which was probably our direct ancestor (this follows an 'Out of Africa' scenario for modern human origins).

We have no evidence that Neanderthals or other Early Humans engaged in anthropomorphic thinking. The absence of evidence is not, of course, the evidence of absence; quite how anthropomorphic thinking would be represented archaeologically is unclear. Nevertheless, as I have argued elsewhere (Mithen 1994; 1996), it is most likely that Early Humans had a domain-specific mentality - a series of mental modules, cognitive domains or intelligences that were essentially modern in character but which operated in isolation from each other. It is only by attributing these hominids with such minds that we can make sense of the archaeological record. How could Neanderthals, for instance, have shown such technical intelligence when making stone tools - which are as complex as any made by modern humans - but ignored materials such as bone and ivory which would have considerably improved their technological repertoire? How could they have had such complex social lives, as implied by studies of their brain size (Dunbar 1993), but not used items of material culture as a medium for social interaction? Neanderthals and other Early Humans seem to have been unable to transfer ways of thinking and knowledge from one cognitive domain to another. It is most likely that they possessed an intuitive belief-desire psychology, as this appears to have been present early in human evolution (Byrne 1995).

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