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).