Fire the press secretary

Jerry Fodor

  • Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind by Robert Kurzban
    Princeton, 274 pp, £19.95, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 14674 4

Sometimes, when I’m feeling dyspeptic, I wonder why psychologists have such a down on minds. Psychologists, of all people. In philosophy, ever since Plato, the mainstream opinion has been that the mind is the organ of thought; thinking is what the mind is for, and we act as we do because we think what we do. But psychologists, for the last hundred years or so, have mostly viewed that sort of ‘intellectualism’ as an embarrassing remnant of the Enlightenment: behaviourists say that the question of what minds are for doesn’t arise, since there aren’t any. Freudians say that the myth that we think is a sort of cover story that the mind tells itself to avoid having to confess to its libidinous urges. Associationists say that we don’t need a mind to think with (‘we don’t need an “executive”’ is how they put it) because ideas think themselves in virtue of the mechanical connections among them. And neuropsychologists say that since the mind is the brain, we don’t need the one because we have the other. That this bundle of muddle is recommended as the hard-headed, scientific way to do psychology is, I think, among the wonders of the age.

Anyhow, the version of anti-intellectualism that’s current is Psychological Darwinism, and Robert Kurzban’s new book is a typical instance. I’ll take a paragraph or two to sketch the connection between what Psychological Darwinists say and the anti-intellectualist thesis that there aren’t any minds. After that, I’ll focus on the latter, as does Kurzban.

Psychological Darwinism is the theory that some/many/all of the traits that constitute our ‘psychological phenotype’ (roughly, the catalogue of our innate mental traits) are adaptations to problems posed by the environments in which the mind evolved. There is plenty of disagreement about the details, but here’s the story to a first approximation. 1) The evolution of our psychological phenotype was largely driven by intra-specific competition for (viable) offspring. 2) Natural selection is the primary mechanism by which phenotypes evolve. This is true of psychological phenotypes inter alia. 3) The function of a phenotypic trait is determined by those of its properties in virtue of which it contributes to the adaptivity of creatures that have it. Thus, tigers have stripes because having stripes affords camouflage and, all else being equal, tigers that are camouflaged have more viable offspring than tigers that don’t. But bear in mind that the adaptivity of a phenotypic trait is its contribution to fecundity in the environment in which it was selected; not (or not necessarily) in the environment that it currently occupies. A penchant for a calorie-intensive diet was adaptive when we were running around in the veldt; but it probably isn’t adaptive now. (Followed by much minatory wagging of fingers at the obese.) 4) Our psychological phenotype is pretty much what you would expect it to be if it was selected for adaptivity to the environment that it evolved in. Therefore our psychological phenotypes are ‘massively modular’; therefore there is no such thing as the mind or the self; and (present company excepted) we are all self-deluding hypocrites.

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[*] Peter Godfrey-Smith reviewed What Darwin Got Wrong in the LRB of 8 July 2010.