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Cognitive Gadgets Summary Ch 1

Updated: Sep 3, 2022

Cognitive Gadgets

Below is my summary of chapter 1 of Cecilia Heyes' book, Cognitive Gadgets. Stay tuned for my summary of other aspects of her work, including this book.

Introduction. What makes humans so special? Cecilia Heyes argues that the same mechanisms that produce tools have produced distinct human ways of thinking. These ways of thinking are not the product of human design but biological and cultural evolution. She calls these ways of thinking “cognitive gadgets” or “cognitive mechanisms.” They depend on the evolution of culture, not just genetics. These cognitive gadgets include, but are not limited to, causal understanding, episodic memory, imitation, mind reading, and normative thinking. These are acquired through social learning. The basis of these gadgets is general purpose learning mechanisms, memory, sociality, and attentional biases.

Chapter 1. A Question and Many Answers

Geography. What makes humans unique? Some religious groups attribute this to a supernatural cause. Scientific theories do not. Different scientists approach the question by focusing on different aspects of the human: body, brain, behavior, and mind. Evolutionary theories focus on narrative (things that occurred in evolution) or forces (processes that occur). These processes involve cultural transmission, epigenetics, genetics, and natural selection.

Evolutionary Psychology. About twenty years ago, evolutionary psychology argued that human distinctiveness has to do with the human mind. This went against human socio-biology and behavioral ecology that ignored the mind. Evolutionary psychology holds that “...genetic evolution is the architect of the human mind” (12). Human ways of thinking come programmed in our brains, and these programs develop through experience. Heyes’ cognitive gadget view disagrees with evolutionary psychology. Heyes agrees that the mind makes us unique, but she does not believe that genetic evolution is the architect of the mind.

Cultural Evolutionary Theory. Cultural evolutionary theory has maintained that “genetic evolution has given humans mechanisms for cultural learning, and, using these cognitive instincts, we learn from others most of what we need for survival and reproduction…” (15). So, this theory is like evolutionary psychology in thinking that genes are the architect of the mind, but it emphasizes the importance of cultural inheritance. As mentioned, the cognitive gadgets theory rejects the genetic architect theory.

Cultural evolutionary theory has mostly focused on behavior and artifacts. For example, on fish hooks or family size. Heyes argues that the cultural evolutionary mechanisms that explain behavior and artifacts--cultural evolution and social learning--can also explain human cognitive mechanisms. Heyes takes the emphasis on the mind from evolutionary psychology but leaves out genetics as fashioning the way we think. The way we think comes from cultural evolution, not genetics. So she calls her view cultural evolutionary psychology. It emphasizes that the way we think, not just what we think, is influenced by culture.

Fellow travelers. Social anthropologists have argued that culture changes the way we think. Heyes points out that the difference between their views and hers is that she will draw on evolution and cognitive science. Cross cultural psychology also has pointed out that culture changes the way we think, but this field is a methodology more than a research program.

Why Now? Heyes explains that previously disconnected fields in cognitive science, social psychology, and neuroscience are connecting, resulting in the promising field of “social cognitive neuroscience.” This makes for a great time to test the theory of cultural evolutionary psychology, which holds that learning can instill new cognitive mechanisms. “At the core of human social learning and teaching are the same, basic mechanisms used by all vertebrates, and many invertebrates, to learn about predictive relationships between events…” (19). A proof of concept for cultural evolutionary psychology is reading. Reading is a cultural activity that has been shown to transform our neuro-cognitive mechanisms. Heyes’ theory asks how far can this go?

Conclusion. The cognitive gadgets theory seeks to answer what makes humans so unique? Like evolutionary psychology, it points to the mind, but it denies that genetic evolution alone structured the mind. Like cultural evolutionary theory, it emphasizes the importance of cultural inheritance, but unlike this theory, the cognitive gadgets theory maintains that cognitive mechanisms themselves are products of culture--they are gadgets, not instincts.


Heyes, Cecilia M. 2018. Cognitive gadgets: the cultural evolution of thinking. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University press.


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