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Jean Nicod Prize & Lectures 2008


KIM STERELNY

The Fate of the Third Chimpazee

Short biography

Kim Sterelny is an Australian, born in the outback of NSW in 1950, but bought up in and near Sydney, where he went to university, doing both his undergraduate and his Ph.D at the University of Sydney. He worked at various universities on the east coast of Australia before accepting a permanent position in New Zealand, at Victoria University of Wellington, in 1988. In 1999, he returned to Australia half time, to the Research School of the Social Sciences, at the Australian National University, Canberra, and continues to divide his time between the two capital cities of New Zealand and Australia. He is currently Professor of Philosophy at both institutions. He has had visiting positions at the University of Maryland, Northwestern, Simon Fraser University, Bristol University, and California Institute of Technology (twice). His work has always focused on the intersection between philosophy and the natural sciences; originally linguistics and cognitive psychology, but in the last decade, his interests have increasingly shifted to evolutionary questions. His non-academic interests mostly concern natural history: birding, snorkelling and bushwalking, and reading about all three. When in the city, but not his office or home, he is much more likely to be found in a bar or café than in an art gallery, movie theatre or concert hall. He has a partner and one nine-year old daughter.



Brochure ǀ Poster

Program

Tuesday May, 13th, 4 - 6pm
Ecole Normale Supérieure, 45, rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris
(Salle des Actes)
Plasticity, Learnability, Differentiation : An Alternative Model of Evolutionary Psychology

The best known version of evolutionary psychology is inspired by Chomskian linguistics, and thus is built around a modular, nativist view of human minds ; typically conjoined to some version of the social intelligence hypothesis. I agree with two of the fundamental diagnoses that lie behind this approach. First, many of the everyday problems that confront human agents have a high cognitive load. Humans respond appropriately to many ordinary challenges of life only because and to the extent that they can recognise, access and use large amounts of information, much of which is cryptic. Nativist evolutionary psychologists argue that our capacity to do this requires special explanation, and I agree. Second : there is something distinctive in the human evolutionary trajectory ; a trajectory that has taken us from being a minor element in the East African fauna to a cosmopolitan distribution and an unprecedented ecological footprint. Such a trajectory cannot be explained as a response to some external stimulus like climate change, for then we would expect to see broadly similar trajectories in other lineages. The unique features of hominin evolution seem to indicate a feedback-driven, internal dynamics. The usual suggestion is that the evolution of human intelligence was driven by the threat and opportunity posed by other humans ; as we became more intelligent, our social environment became more complex, which selected for further growth in intelligence. I agree that to explain human evolution, we must explain how we come to be able to solve high-load problems, and we must identify the feedback loops that drove our distinctive and unusual trajectory. But I have a different diagnosis of how these problems are to be solved. In sessions 3 and 4, I develop an alternative picture of the feedback loops which drove the evolution of our distinctive cognitive profile. In this first session I focus on the problem of cognitive load, illustrating and motivating an alternative solution. Cognitive competence can be enriched and stabilised two ways : genetically, and by engineering the learning environment of plastic learners. In my view, both are important, but the role of developmental niche construction has been neglected. I propose to correct, perhaps over-correct, this neglect. Lecture1.pdf

Kim Sterelny will be awarded the Jean-Nicod Prize after the lecture.



Thursday May, 15th, 2 - 4 pm
Ecole Normale Supérieure, 45, rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris
(Salle des Actes)
The Model in Action : Against Moral Nativism

Language, complex tool-use, extensive co-operation between non-relatives ; religion and ritual are all distinctive features of the human mind. They seem to be found in no other living primate, and they seem to be features of all human cultures and of most (perhaps all) their members. We are tool-using, talking, co-operating, god-bothering apes. We are also moralising apes : arguably, making moral judgements is both typically human, and unique to humans. Recently, this has been grist for the modular nativist mill ; Marc Hauser and John Mikhail (most notably) have explicitly based their models of moral cognition on language. I draw on the model developed in session 1 to build both a sceptical response to this nativist picture and an alternative analysis of moral cognition. The positive view owes much to those descendants of Hume who see moral cognition as essentially a gloss on pre-existing social emotions, but it gives a much greater role to top-down (and hence cultural) inputs. [Background to lecture 2].
Video - Lecture2.pdf

 

Tuesday May, 20th, 2 - 4 pm
Ecole Normale Supérieure, 45, rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris
(Salle des Actes)
The Model in Action : Social Learning and Its Transformation

Social learning is not unique to our species ; we do not differ from other primates through being able to learn from our fellows. But social learning takes a unique form in our species : we can accumulate cognitive capital. Human groups (and perhaps individual humans) inherit informational resources from the previous generation, preserve those resources effectively, sometimes add to them, and transmit them accurately to the next generation. This accumulation of cognitive resources is (i) unique ; (ii) is central to the explanation of the adaptation of individual and groups to their environment (as Pete Richerson and Bob Boyd have often stressed) ; (iii) is central to the geographic, demographic and ecological expansion of our species ; (iv) confronts human minds with novel problems of information management, both of bandwidth and of content. There has been a lively debate within the human evolution community on both the paleoanthropological signature of this novel form of culture (“behavioural modernity”, as it is sometimes called) and about the specific key innovation that makes it possible. I defend the idea that the accumulation of cognitive capital is central to human evolution. But I draw upon the model developed in session 1 to argue against a “key adaptation” model of the establishment of this engine of accumulation. Instead, I argue that the origin of accumulation depended on the construction and stabilisation of social and learning environments of the right kind. Behavioural modernity depends on an innovation in epistemic engineering, not a genetic transformation.
Video
Lecture3.pdf
[Background to lecture 3]
K. Sterelny : What is Behavioural Modernity ?

 

Wednesday May, 21th, 2 - 4 pm
Ecole Normale Supérieure, 45, rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris
(Salle des Actes )
The Model in Action : Revisiting The Problem of Co-Operation

This session is about the distinctive feedback loops that drove our evolutionary trajectory, and in particular, about the role of co-operation in human evolution. An important theme is that the defection problem, while real and important, has been both over-played and misdescribed. It has been overplayed : understanding how the threat of defection has been contained is not the only challenge to understanding co-operation. It has been misdescribed : in most environments, the defection problem is not one of identification but control. Instead of focusing on defection and its potential costs, I focus on the profit of co-operation, and how that profit came to be amplified over time. In discussing these issues, I develop a social intelligence-ecological complexity hybrid model. I argue that hominins have both created and responded to a unique foraging mode ; a mode that is both social in itself and which has further effects on hominin social environments (so as in earlier sessions, a continuing theme is the impact of humans on their own selective and developmental environments). I compare this model to the currently popular idea that the foundational form of human co-operation was reproductive co-operation ; in particular, a co-operative alliance between grandmothers and daughters that met the threat posed by increasingly seasonal human environments and which allowed those daughters to wean their infants early and often. I argue that reproductive co-operation was probably important, but only as an element of a more general co-operative syndrome. In contrast to some social intelligence models, on the model defended here, hominin encounters with their ecological environments continue to have profound selective effects. However, though the ecological environment selects, it does not select on its own. Accidents and their consequences ; differential success and failure, result from the combination of the ecological environment an agent faces and the social features that enhance some opportunities and suppress others ; that exacerbate some dangers and lessen others. Individuals do not face the ecological filters on their environment alone, but with others, and with the technology, information and misinformation that their social world provides.
Video
Lecture4.pdf
[Background to lecture 4]
K.Sterelny : Social Intelligence, Human Intelligence and Niche Construction

 


Bibliography



Published lectures: The Evolved Apprentice: How Evolution Made Humans Unique. MIT Press, 2012

1987. LANGUAGE AND REALITY (AVEC M. DEVITT). CAMBRIDGE, MASS.: BLACKWELL/MIT PRESS. SECOND EDITION 1999.
1990. THE REPRESENTATIONAL THEORY OF MIND: AN INTRODUCTION. OXFORD:
BLACKWELL.
1999. SEX AND DEATH: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF BIOLOGY (AVEC P. GRIFFITHS). CHICAGO: CHICAGO UNIVERSITY PRESS.
2001. THE EVOLUTION OF AGENCY AND OTHER ESSAYS. CAMBRIDGE: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
2001. DAWKINS, GOULD AND THE SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST. CAMBRIDGE: ICON BOOKS. SECOND EDITION 2007.
2003. THOUGHT IN A HOSTILE WORLD. MALDEN, M.A: BLACKWELL, (LAKATOS PRIZE 2004).
2003. FROM MATING TO MENTALITY EVALUATING EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY (ED. AVEC J. FITNESS) MACQUARIE MONOGRAPHS IN COGNITIVE SCIENCE. NEW YORK: PSYCHOLOGY PRESS.
2008. WHAT IS BIODIVERSITY? (AVEC J. MACLAURIN). CHICAGO: UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
 

 

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
(Département des Sciences Humaines et Sociales)

Ecole Normale Supérieure
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales
 


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