The Origin and Evolution of Cultures

By Robert Boyd; Peter J. Richerson | Go to book overview

4
Climate, Culture, and the
Evolution of Cognition

What are the causes of the evolution of complex cognition? Discussions of the evolution of cognition sometimes seem to assume that more complex cognition is a fundamental advance over less complex cognition, as evidenced by a broad trend toward larger brains in evolutionary history. Evolutionary biologists are suspicious of such explanations because they picture natural selection as a process leading to adaptation to local environments, not to progressive trends. Cognitive adaptations will have costs, and more complex cognition will evolve only when its local utility outweighs them.

In this chapter, we argue that Cenozoic trends in cognitive complexity represent adaptations to an increasingly variable environment. The main support for this hypothesis is a correlation between environmental deterioration and brain size increase in many mammalian lineages.

We would also like to understand the sorts of cognitive mechanisms that were favored in building more complex cognitions. The problem is difficult because little data exist on the adaptive trade-offs and synergies between different cognitive strategies for adapting to variable environments. Animals might use information-rich, innate decision-making abilities, individual learning, social learning, and, at least in humans, complex culture, alone or in various combinations, to create sophisticated cognitive systems.

We begin with a discussion of the correlated trends in environmental deterioration and brain size evolution and then turn to the problem of what sorts of cognitive strategies might have served as the impetus for brain enlargement.

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