Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

What Will They Think of Next?: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

What Will They Think of Next?: Books

Article excerpt

Kerstin Hoge probes a view of the mind that takes aim at Chomsky and evolutionary psychology.

The Unpredictable Species: What Makes Humans Unique

By Philip Lieberman

Princeton University Press

272pp, Pounds 19.95

ISBN 9780691148588 and 9781400846702 (e-book)

Published 21 April 2013

The term "unpredictable" carries conflicting connotations. On the one hand, an unpredictable person or object can be understood to fall short of the expected standard; on the other, unpredictability is linked to originality, a prerequisite for creativity and human advancement. It is this latter sense of "unpredictable" to which Philip Lieberman refers here. Modern humans, he believes, evolved to be the "unpredictable species" owing to the enhanced creative capacities of their brains, which the author locates in the computational efficiency of brain circuits "involving cortex, basal ganglia, hippocampus, and other neural structures". Crucially, he seeks to establish that the circuitry responsible for our cognitive flexibility is neither domain-specific nor uniquely human. For example, cortico-basal ganglionic circuits, whose impairment leads to language loss, are also involved in regulating motor control, associative learning and even emotion; the circuits "do not materially differ in monkeys and humans".

This view of the mind sits in stark contrast to the so-called "massive modularity hypothesis", according to which the mind/brain is not a general purpose computer but composed of a collection of cognitive modules that are specialised for particular functions, including language. Rejecting modularity entails two further consequences. First, if there are no neural structures uniquely dedicated to language, there can be no "language organ" or genetically determined faculty enabling its acquisition. Second, if the mind is not massively modular, one of the core tenets of evolutionary psychology, which sees human behaviour as based on innate psychological mechanisms that evolved via natural selection, is invalid, providing a reason to dismiss evolutionary psychology more generally. And so this book is to be read as taking a stand against both Noam Chomsky's biological conception of language and evolutionary psychology, neither of which Lieberman sees as having contributed to our understanding of the nature and evolution of the human mind.

Instead, for Lieberman, language and behaviour are products of cultural evolution. Cultural evolution shapes the social and physical environment (the "human ecosystem") in which natural selection operates, and thereby leads to genetic evolution. …

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