Evolution and the Mind

I just looked at the excellent bibliography we’re given by Saray in a comment on the previous post.  It raises the question of the human mind as the product of evolution.  I realized I have what may be a new argument to say that much in human cognition is not the product of evolution.  It draws on stunning new research about reading and writing.

It’s forthcoming in my paper for the OUP vol on feminist philosophy of mind, but here is the heart of it, taken from an abstract for something else:

In this work I consider the idea of functions selected for by evolution, a key notion in many accounts of representational content. I argue that very important aspects of cognitive functioning are selected for by culture, and not evolution. They are social products, unlike what the representationalist claims.

The favored account for functions in representationalist theories is the selected effect account. On this view, functions of objects or traits are selected by evolution. And “selected” here just means that it is the function contributed to the trait or organism’s increasing its presence in a relevant population. For this view, we can think of the items as having numerical success, which is to be understood in factual terms as increasing its representation.

There is a problem with this view, however. The problem is that there are ways of functioning that come on the scene too recently for evolutionary success to have had much role. Most importantly, our ability to read and write seems not to be the result of some evolutionary selection for the required abilities, since any selection occurred before such abilities were on the scene. Reading and writing are in large part results of cultural forces that exploit neural coincidences and create new neural connections.

Recent research on reading shows the unlikeliness of explaining reading ability as a selected effect rather than a cultural object; learning to read involves very substantially changing the brain:

From a basic research point of view, working with illiterate people is also very rewarding. Writing is a very recent cultural invention if we look at the evolutionary history of our species. The first proper scripts were invented less than 6000 years ago. That means there is no reading area or reading network that could be specified in our genes. Looking at how cultural inventions change brain function and structures helps us to understand how the brain works on a fundamental level.

… We found the expected changes in the cortex but we also observed that the learning process leads to a reorganization that extends to deep brain structures in the thalamus and the brainstem. The relatively young phenomenon of human literacy therefore changes brain regions that are very old in evolutionary terms and already core parts of mice and other mammalian brains.

… These deep structures in the thalamus and brainstem help our visual cortex to filter important information from the flood of visual input even before we consciously perceive it. Interestingly, it seems that the more the signal timings between the two brain regions are aligned, the better the reading capabilities. It appears that these brain systems increasingly fine-tune their communication as learners become more and more proficient in reading (Michael A. Skeide 2017).


Learning to read changes progressively the ancient structure of the brain. Neither the results needed for reading nor the original structures are or were selected by evolution because reading increases the presence of readers in a population. The selections came before the reading.

Millikan (1984)) argues that there area derived functions that are still selected for. Could this bring reading under the scope of evolution? I shall argue that it does not. To see that we need to distinguish between cultural constructions which simply create new applications for older functions and those that create genuinely new functions. Reading instruction changes the structures used, and so the causal powers. These changes yield functions selected by the culture, and not by evolution.

Millikan, Ruth Garrett. 1984. Language, thought, and other biological categories : new foundations for realism. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Michael A. Skeide, Uttam Kumar, Ramesh K. Mishra, Viveka N. Tripathi, Anupam Guleria, Jay P. Singh, Frank Eisner, Falk Huettig. 2017. “Learning to read alters cortico-subcortical cross-talk in the visual system of illiterates.” Science Advances 3 (5).

Hey social epistemologists!

I just listened to the first of the Slate podcasts about Watergate, which was on Martha Mitchell.  And some social epistemologists really need to write this up.  Martha Mitchell was married to John Mitchell, Nixon’s Attorney General.  She was known as a tremendously entertaining gossip.  When the Watergate burglary happened, Martha quickly became suspicious because she knew one of the burglars.  She called her friend Helen Thomas (legendary reporter) to tell her of these suspicions.  Security guard Steve King wrestled the phone from her and ripped it from the wall.  She was then sedated.  Word was put out that she had a drinking problem, and she was dismissed as “The Mouth of the South”.  All of this made it into the newspapers, but she was successfully discredited and dismissed– and it was on the women pages.

Of course, Martha was right.  So right that psychologists named the Martha Mitchell Effect after her– that’s when someone is dismissed as crazy but is actually right.

Now just think for a moment about the standard Watergate story we know– heroic male reporters and their male sources.  And think of how close we came to that story being one that starts with Helen Thomas and Martha Mitchell.

Maybe social epistemologists have already discussed this.  If not, they should!

Weinstein, Westminster, and Philosophy

An article by Helen Beebee and Heather Widdows.

We don’t pretend for a moment that this is an easy problem to solve. We ourselves have in the past been guilty of failing to take proportionate action. We’ve been talking and reflecting, and there are things we would now do differently, different actions we’d have taken, different discussions we’d have had at department level and higher (rather than between ourselves) and different policies we’d have advocated for. We did some of this, we tried, but … in hindsight we should have done more: there was so much more that could have been done, and we feel bad about this. But hindsight is important: figuring out what you could have done differently is an important step towards doing things differently next time.

Read the whole thing.

Thanksgiving Day in the States

It is possible to see so much about Thanksgiving as problematic. I will spare you a list. Even pictures of the quite beautiful male turkeys circling the females can be reminders of the recent sordid revelation of abuse of women by powerful men. But with the turkeys there looks to be GOOD NEWS.

Now it seems very likely that the female birds choose their mates based on who looks sexy, where that does NOT correlate with fitness or power in the males! Sometimes a pretty face is just a pretty face.

So enjoy the display:


I have to confess that I now wonder whether, e.g., Charlie Rose walking around naked or Louis CK see themselves as making comparable displays.

CFP: Analysing Love (May 15, 2018)

AnaLize – Journal of Gender and Feminist Studies is pleased to announce the launch of a call for papers for a special issue on “Analysing Love”.

Submission deadline: May 15, 2018. The full CFP is here.

As a topic of scholarly analysis, love raises a variety of difficult questions: how do norms about love change, as social norms about gender roles are changing? Are the societies that we live in amatonormative, i.e. is romantic love between partners seen as central to human flourishing – and is this problematic? Can one love a robot – and can a robot be one’s friend? Can preference for specific genders, ethnicities or other attributes in lovers be the product of prejudice? Is there a right to be loved, and is love, or should it be, unconditional? Is love an emotion? Is it a disease? Why does love hurt? Questions such as these have increasingly captured the attention of researchers from several disciplines from philosophy to sociology, psychology or biology. In this special issue, we aim to provide a space in which these concerns can be explored from different scholarly perspectives.

We welcome manuscript proposals from any research area discussing, from a gender perspective, contemporary challenges of love. These can include explorations of topics such as (but not limited to):

Norms about love and gender justice
Love and marriage
Love and the family
Pregnancy, bonding and parental love
Love and technology
Enhancing love
Love and sex
Love and respect
Love and consent
Politics of love
Interspecies love
The ethics of love
What feminism has to say about love

Diversity in Philosophy initiatives

Jessica Moss (NYU) and Edouard Machery (Pitt, HPS) sent us the following note, which will be of interest to many of our readers:

There are now several well-established initiatives aimed at addressing the lack of diversity of philosophy (http://www.apaonline.org/page/diversityinstitutes). To support these efforts, NYU and Pitt have recently decided to waive application fees related to their PhD programs in Philosophy (NYU and Pitt) and in History and Philosophy of Science (Pitt) for students who participated to these initiatives. We suspect other schools have similarly waved their application fees and we invite them to advertise their efforts in the comments thread.

Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain interviews Kit Connor

The new instalment of Dialogues on Disability is up, in which Shelley Tremain interviews Kit Connor. This extremely interesting piece contains a lot of insights relevant to feminist philosophy and the tools it can provide:

Feminist philosophies give me tools and company in which to begin to ask and articulate the questions: what could it mean to subvert, transform, make different these kinds of scaffoldings within the material worlds and workings of oppression in which they are maintained? To bear weight? To hold grief differently? What could it look like to celebrate unpredictability in the outskirts? I look to philosophy—in, within, and outside the academic institution—as a mode in which to collide personal histories of my hatred for my willing parts and their usefulness without reducing this collision to a story only about subjugation, resistance, subversion, or celebration, as a mode to recognize this hatred within collective intersecting histories and realities of containment.

But also ways in which feminist spaces can remain exclusionary:

Even within spaces of academic feminist communities, which may be at work to make themselves permeable, to interrupt the constructs and barriers that prevent inclusion and movement of certain bodies in them, I often find that I am usually not what is expected.

You can read more here: http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2017/11/dialogues-on-disability-shelley-tremain-interviews-kit-connor.html