Re: modularity and phrenology (was a Bigfoot thread)

From: Dace (
Date: Wed 14 May 2003 - 19:02:29 GMT

  • Next message: Wade T. Smith: "Re: transmission"

    > From: "Scott Chase" <>
    > >From: "Dace" <>

    > > > >Any publicity, no matter
    > > > >how bad, will help perpetuate them.
    > > >
    > > > Keith:
    > > > Your point is not entirely accurate here. I use the example of
    > >phrenology
    > > > to make the point that some widely held silliness does die out.
    > >
    > >I see what you mean. There comes a point when the absurdity of the meme
    > >too much for anyone to accept. Memes are not indestructible. If you
    > >a stake through its heart, it might just give up the ghost. I understand
    > >garlic can be effective as well.
    > >
    > >
    > Among four reasons for the failure of phrenology given in Kolb and
    > text _Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology_ (p. 330) the fourth one is
    > interesting: (bq) "In the eyes of their contemporaries, however, there was
    > more damning criticism, which was the fourth cause of their failure. Gall
    > and Spurzheim had postulated that the brain is the organ of the mind, that
    > personality characteristics are innate, and that the brain (or mind) is
    > composed of independent functioning units. The prevailing opinion still
    > reflected Descartes: the mind is nonmaterial and functions as a whole.
    > these views are still held be many people today, it is possible to
    > understand the hostility their criticism evoked nearly 200 years ago."
    > This fourth reason sounds amazingly close to the viewpoint of sociobiology
    > and evolutionary psychology (ie- mindbrain, innateness of personality,
    > modularity of mind).

    This remains a good reason to reject phrenology. Modularity does appear to be an innovation of the primate mind, in particular the social module of intelligence and also including modules for tool-making and natural history intelligence. But the breakthrough of human mentality, as Stephen Mithen argues in *The Prehistory of the Mind*, is the emergence of abstract intelligence, which functions at a general level and into which all prior modules were ultimately incorporated. Mithen mentions in the preface to his book that he owes a great deal to evolutionary psychology, but in the end he had to reject the notion that modularity remains today in human consciousness.

    The latest issue of Skeptic contains a review of a new book by Peggy La Cerra and Roger Bingham called *The Origin of Minds: Evolution, Uniqueness, and the New Science of the Self*. Here's an excerpt of the review, by Michael Shermer:

    According to EPers [evolutionary psychologists] the mind is like a Swiss Army knife, loaded with specialized tools that evolved in our Paleolithic past to solve specific problems of survival, such as face recognition, language acquisition, mate selection, and cheating detection. In this reductionist model, the brain is represented as a host of modules, or bundles of neurons, some located in a single spot (as in Broca's area for language), others sprawled out over the cortex. Large modules coordinate inputs from smaller modules, which themselves collate neural events from still smaller neural bundles. This reduction continues all the way down to the single neuron level, where highly-selective neurons, sometimes describes as "grandmother" neurons, fire only when subjects see someone they know.

    For many years Peggy La Cerra, a graduate in evolutionary psychology from UC Santa Barbara, and Roger Bingham, at the center for Brain and Cognition at UC San Diego, were outspoken advocates of the EP paradigm. Bingham even hosted an award-winning PBS documentary series, *The Human Quest*, which was nothing short of adulatory in canonizing the doctrines of this new science. In *The Origin of Minds*, however, La Cerra and Bingham challenge the canon and reveal that they have become EP revisionists. They argue that our ancestral inheritance is not a set of fixed cognitive tools, but a living
    "brain/mind-construction system" that exploits pliable brain tissue, changing it with new or changing experiences. The Swiss-Army knife, it seems, can design new blades for cuting through new environments.

    The key insight is that human mentality functions as a whole in a highly flexible manner and does not depend on preset modules.


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