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Domains, brains, and evolution.

Wheeler, M. and Atkinson, A. (2001) 'Domains, brains, and evolution.', in Naturalism, evolution and mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 239-266. Royal Institute of Philosophy supplement. (49).


Our aim in this paper is to do some conceptual spring-cleaning. Several prominent evolutionary psychologists have argued that the human cognitive architecture consists in a large number of domain-specific features, rather than, as dissenters claim, a small number of domain-general features. The first difficulty here is that there exists no widely agreed-upon definition of ‘domain’. We show that evolutionary psychology has the resources for such a definition: a domain is defined as an adaptive problem, or a set of suitably related adaptive problems. Adopting this definition, we proceed to introduce the distinction between data and algorithms, and to differentiate four conceptions of our cognitive architecture, only two of which, we argue, are viable: (a) general-purpose mechanisms operating on domain-specific information, and (b) special-purpose mechanisms operating on domain-specific information. Typically, evolutionary psychologists argue in favour of (b), as against (a). Following a defence of this position against a recent claim that the process of exaptation makes general-purpose mechanisms evolutionarily plausible, we consider the strongest of the evolutionary psychologists’ in-principle arguments for the evolutionary implausibility of general-purpose mechanisms. This argument is based on two requirements: that the human cognitive architecture must (i) be capable of solving all the adaptive problems faced by our ancestors, and (ii) have outperformed all competing designs. Work in artificial intelligence suggests that although requirement (i) might be met by general-purpose mechanisms coupled with domain-specific information, requirement (ii) won’t. Nonetheless, we propose (tentatively) that relatively general-purpose mechanisms might result from the operation of multiple, simultaneous, systematically related selection pressures. An examination of this proposal, however, brings into sharp relief the fact that, in many evolutionary scenarios, it simply may not be possible to establish a robust distinction between domain-specific and domain-general features.

Item Type:Book chapter
Full text:(AM) Accepted Manuscript
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Publisher statement:© Cambridge University Press 2001
Date accepted:No date available
Date deposited:10 March 2015
Date of first online publication:August 2001
Date first made open access:No date available

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