Advances in Psychological Science, Volume 2: Biological and Cognitive Aspects

By D J K Mewhort | Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Advances in Psychological Science, Volume 2: Biological and Cognitive Aspects


D J K Mewhort, Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology


Sex, Mayhem, and Psychology's Two Solitudes

Review of M. Sabourin, F. Craik, & M. Robert (Eds.), Advances in psychological science, Volume 2: Biological and cognitive aspects. Hove, East Sussex; Psychology Press, 1998. (633 + xxii pages).

D. J. K. MEWHORT, Queen's University

The volume arose from the International Congress of Psychology held in Montreal, August 1996. It is a collection of papers, predominantly on biological aspects of psychology. Although the title promises a discussion of cognition, like the dog that did not bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, reference to much of current cognitive psychology is conspicuously missing. In the section on Cognition, Perception, and Memory, for example, only three papers (Hatano on comprehension, Bertelson on perception of multimodal events, and Koria on metamemory) have an experimentalbehavioural focus. Moreover, such icons of cognitive psychology as J. R. Anderson, A. Baddeley, C. Burgess, M. Coltheart, D. Hintzman, M. Humphreys, P. Johnson-Laird, H. Pashler, D. Kahneman, W. Kintsch, T. Landauer, B. Murdock, G. McKoon, D. Medin, J. Nairne, R. Nosofsky, A. Newell, R. Ratcliff, R. Schank, R. Shiffrin, A. Treisman, and A. Tversky are not cited anywhere. Connectionist thinking is considered only in Plunkett's paper on cognitive development. In short, the psychological science advanced in the book is a very different psychology than the one I know. As I read the book, I felt like an outsider looking in on a psychology that has been untouched by the revolution in computational modelling and, indeed, untouched by much of current behavioural work.

But first, let me turn to sex and mayhem. Roubertoux, Mortaud, Torjman, Le Roy, and Degrelle discuss genetic aspects of aggression using the mouse as an animal model. It is a fascinating example of basic science and, importantly, of good methodology. The genetic contribution to aggression is complex and indirect. As Roubertoux et al. note, it is not a story that lends itself to simple-minded excursions into social policy: It "should discourage any eugenic temptation and disgrace eugenics itself' (p. 24). But, as they also note, mayhem results if the lesson is ignored. Their example concerns a dispute within the Behavior Genetics Association leading to the resignation of the President Elect both from office and from the society itself. But, with eugenic and racist views waiting in the wings, even among academics who ought to know the science better, it takes little imagination to project mayhem to a larger social stage.

Corballis provides an elegantly written speculation on the mind's evolution. The paper ranges over a wide set of issues from bipedalism, language in nonhuman primates, the development of human language, to specialization of the cerebral hemispheres. It is a delightful romp through anthropology and natural history. But, the speculation is based on indirect correlational evidence. The history of experimental design, from Claude Bernard forward, shows that there is no substitute for manipulative control (a like concern led the Societe Linguistique de Paris in 1866 to ban papers on the origins of language). However delightful and colourful the prose, it is difficult to imagine a practical way to test the idea that the inhabitants of the Great Rift valley adopted bipedal walking because "knuckle-walking may have been simply less efficient than upright walking, especially over long distances" (p. 39).

I raise the methodological issue not because I disliked Corballis's paper but because it was fun and because I felt guilty for liking it: Methodology is the core of science. The topic, the evolution of the mind, is unlikely to engender the emotional response given to sex, race, and criminal aggression, but, as Roubertoux et al. document, once one weakens the rules of evidence, the door is open to mayhem.

Kanwisher reviews studies of human brain imaging to illuminate the processing of visual shape, the what-where issue, and face perception. …

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