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Evolutionary psychologists claim that social and cognitive abilities are linked in evolution Essay

Evolution could be described as subtle change over a very long time. It is amazing to contemplate, (though possibly offensive for followers of teleological approaches to evolution) that despite human uniqueness, there may well have been no preconceived design in our evolution. Clearly unique we have, for example, changed and exploited the world around us to suit our own needs, and are able to discuss our thinking.

But could our linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as our technological ‘superiority’, merely be the product of ‘random genetic events leading to biological and behavioural changes’? Miell, Phoenix & Thomas eds. Mapping Psychology 1, p163). Were these in their turn sustained and passed on, should they happen contribute to the reproductive success or to the improved survival of the species, just by chance? Are aspects of our development, social and cognitive abilities, interrelated or just separate aspects of evolution? Evolutionary Psychology is based on the claim that contemporary humans have brain structures, which evolved over a very long time.

While how we think and, thus, our resulting conduct, can be traced back to our ancestors, humans are very different from the great apes. Indeed many evolutionary psychologists believe that the increase in our cognitive abilities and social organisation happened alongside biological changes, as a result of environmental changes and new needs. This claim is based on evidence and interpretations which help us understand why and how we may have developed our distinctive human abilities, parting from our higher primate ancestors.

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So happily our ‘higher-level’ or ‘creative’ intelligence, defined by Humphrey (1976) does place us in the category of ‘higher primates’, or ‘hominoids’ (great apes and humans). The more evolutionary psychologists have looked, the more they have found to show that thinking skills and social skills actually developed together, helping eachother along, kind of meshed. Cognitive skills and social skills in terms of our ancestors and therefore one can assume ourselves, developed and continue to develop alongside each other.

This has also been found to be true – as one would predict – of contemporary hunter-gatherers. In his observation of the ! Kung San bushmen, Whiten (1999) reasoned that cognitive processes, such as the planning of a hunt, took place in social contexts, with discussion and consultation amongst group members. Through sharing expertise good ideas and advice, certain mistakes will not be made again. ‘Learning’ benefits the whole organism, better hunting skills, mean better food, which improved health and so on.

Functional explanation of our behaviour looks to our ancestors, asking ‘why’ a certain type of behaviour has been retained. This can be a problematic proposition as our evolutionary forefathers are no longer with us to be observed and tested. So in the absence of firsthand evidence, evolutionary psychologists study behaviour of our closest ancestors, apes, as well as of modern hunter-gatherers, with the aim of establishing what needs gave rise to the learning and social change, required for the development of the contemporary human mind.

By using their knowledge of evolutionary laws, such as, natural selection and reproduction established by Darwin (1859), evolutionary psychologists can speculate on reasons for adaptive changes. As psychologists hypotheses must be supported with evidence obtained, through observation or the collection of samples, for example. Like our ancestors did, and indeed as all animals do, we also face daily social challenges. Clearly there are benefits in terms of social status and so possible reproductive attractiveness, for those who can deal with them successfully.

This view enhanced Humphrey’s thinking towards defining intelligence as an ability to infer a subsequent event based on equivalent past circumstances and modify one’s behaviour accordingly. My cat, like Humphrey’s, might follow me to the kitchen in the morning hoping to be fed. Humphrey refers to this, common, form of cognitive skill through repetition of a familiar sequence of events, as evidence of ‘low-level intelligence’.

‘High-level intelligence’, however, takes it a step further. High level’ or ‘Creative’ intelligence demands the ability to face a new situation with an idea of its possible outcome. Using the ‘reverse-engineering’ (Tooby & Cosmides 1992) approach, Humphrey attempted to deduce what was the problem that led to this step up in intelligence. He suggested that individuals taught and learned from each other, to the benefit of the whole in-group community, not unlike processes included in ‘Social identity theory’. On a more individualistic basis, however, there are benefits to be attained by taking advantage of a potential competitor within that group.

Similarly, psychologists Whiten and Byrne speculated on how the social complexities of ancient humans might increase understanding of the development of our thinking skills. In particular they were attracted at looking at how higher-intelligence might, somewhat disturbingly, have its source in ‘social manipulation, deceit and cunning co-operation’ named the ‘Machiavellian hypothesis’ (Whiten and Byrne, 1997. Cited by Miell et al). Both Humphrey’s and Whiten & Byrne’s theories lead to the conclusion that high order thinking involves being able to calculate the consequences of various options.

Then to deduce which action is most profitable and least damaging to you as an individual and your status within the in-group, while, as in a chessgame, remembering that everyone else may be going through the same thought process. This cognitive development involves interaction with another, so cannot be a solitary process. Clearly no-one can literally ‘know’ the thoughts of another being. The Machiavellian hypothesis requires, one assumes, a developed ability to read another’s thinking, and therefore deduce possible subsequent behaviours.

Implicit mind reading is difficult to prove. In Premack’s (1988) experiment a chimpanzee, Sarah, was able to select the correct photographic solution to video footage of an actor suffering various problems. Premack explained this as Sarah having recognised the aims of the actor. Humans have a much more developed theory of mind. Although we may like to think that our technological skills seem far removed from the non-human animal world, studies have shown otherwise.

Chimpanzees have, for example, been recently observed by, primatologist Goodall, not only being able to use tools, but also to actually make implements appropriate to a particular purpose (Jane Goodall, 1971). Other enthological studies confirm this. We can therefore look to see if these are skills inherited from our common ancestor, and indeed, paleoanthropological finds prove that, homo erectus no longer needing arms to assist with walking, could make tools. Truly these are skills shared by ancient humans.

While we continue to, slowly, evolve: we essentially share the bodies and brains of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Many elements, show the variance between humans and other hominoids: fuller development of the Machiavellian; theory of mind hypotheses; technological skills, for example. ‘Only humans, however, have the full constituents of theory of mind making the differentiation between ourselves and our nearest relatives, chimpanzees. ‘(Miell et al, p129) the creative, higher thinking skills, awareness of self and possibly humour required to make a statuette of a fantasy animal (Mithenm1996).

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