The Psychological Foundations of Culture: Evolution of Mind

SUBJECT: Phenomenological Study

L. Kurt Engelhart


The following is an interpretation and restatement of propositions made by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides in "The Psychological Foundations of Culture," in the referenced text (pp.19-136).

Unified Descriptions An Integrated View Frames of Reference
Organic Systems Functional Organization Systemic Models
Human Ontology Genetics and Reality Organic vs. Mechanical
Universal Structure Action and Learning Conclusion
Reference Email

Unified Descriptions

Disciplines produce reliable and compelling knowledge when it is a combination of logical coherence, causal description, explanatory power and testability. Independent, but nominally separated, disciplines become integrated into an increasingly seamless system of interconnected knowledge. This development is a process of conceptual unification of metaphysically divided descriptions by designing elegant principles that unify disparate phenomena into a single system. Macrostructures are discovered that show microstructures operating according to comprehensible universal principles.

Mind and matter, like humans and universal causation, sometimes metaphysically separated, can be described systemically in terms of successive states (diachronic characteristics) and principles that govern the transitions from state to state (synchronic characteristics). Individuals and their relationships with each other can be described as a systemic architecture (the self) embodied in a physical universe (the other) realized in an interactive, developmental relationship. Explanation of the details of this system requires the joint analysis of the principles and contingencies of the human system as embedded in the larger system of the physical universe.

Such descriptions can come into conflict with prior non-systemic descriptions in ways that violate widely shared, visceral understandings. Avoiding violations of this kind has justified isolation of distinct areas of inquiry and prevented continuous integration of descriptions. Disconnecting the natural sciences from the human sciences has guaranteed natural scientists that their work cannot have implications that violate socially sanctified beliefs. These pressures have lead to a tendency to neglect, or even reject, the epistemological principle that valid knowledge, whether inter- or intra-disciplinary, should be both complete (i.e., include all the data regardless of discipline) and consistent (be reconciled with all descriptions regardless of discipline). Thus intellectual isolationism has increased over recent history, not only because of ideological concerns, but also because it makes the job of producing knowledge much easier, having avoided the messy reconciliation effort. The price paid is a weakness of claims among those who do not subscribe to epistemological standards. The price has been highest for those who have failed to make the connections between "human science" and the rest of the body of science.

An Integrated View

Human science has tended to reject the traditional scientific enterprise in general instead of focussing on the stipulation that psychological and social phenomena are metaphysically distinct from the realm of "natural science." Metaphysical distinction between human and natural science is based on the obvious existence of collective knowledge, distinct realities that adhere within and differ between groups of individuals. Individuals are assumed to be "blank slates" upon which these realities are written by their respective cultures. Thus reality is assumed to be completely independent from the biological entity which adopts it. Since individuals do not unilaterally create reality, then realities must be imposed on individuals by the collective. And these realities are arbitrarily a matter of historically developed "values" in their respective communities. Being arbitrary, there would be very little of interest to study in such realities as contrasted with "scientific knowledge." Any attempt to study these realities and characterize them would simply be serving ideological ends, seeking to establish one reality as superior to another. Rejection of the idea of a universal "human nature" is presented as a scientific discovery.

An integrated view of science, on the contrary, seeks explanatory structures that impose no particular substantive content on a particular reality, and where a few principles account for as much as possible. Explanations need the strong appearance of validity that comes from being evidenced in many accepted realities. Although the complex structures that are the bases for these realities may be either genetically determined or intellectually developed, all structures are subject to reflection and are not involuntary mechanisms. Neither source is prejudicially "good" or "evil." There is nothing restrictive in seeking to specify "human nature" in universal terms because such characterizations do not determine human behavior.

Frames of Reference

Discovering regularities in human nature depends on selecting appropriate frames of reference. The moral appeal of rejecting universal descriptions of human nature has been seen as liberating the individual and celebrating diversity. The result has been a conceptual framework that maximizes rather than minimizes the differences between not only cultures, but communities and individuals. The failure to view differences as profoundly significant is taken to imply a lack of sophistication and moral appreciation for ethnic realities. However, distinctions are not things that are actually there. Distinctions are a function of the system of categorization and description that is chosen and applied. Choosing particularistic frameworks may be interesting in cataloging diversity in the possible range of human behaviors, but it offers little knowledge about the possibilities of universal characteristics.

Universal characteristics lie beneath variable behavior. To construe this universal structure out of the chaos of human phenomena requires selecting appropriate analytical tools and frames of reference. For example, construing individual human behavior as a system that is either "closed" or "open" tends to sort behavior into two distinct groups: the reflexive and the reflective. It is fairly easy to see that human behavior is not this simple to describe. While both the reflexive and reflective states may be supported by evidence, there is no evidence that either state exists independent of the other. The same is true of the categories "individual" and "social." Attempting to locate the cause of behavior exclusively in either may cause systemic processes to be fundamentally misunderstood or mystified.

Social processes are not "things" external to and independent from the individual. Social interactions depend intimately on the understandings of every individual involved of the larger system. How this understanding and how the individuals' actions in the larger system are represented is crucial to both individual and collective reflection on the processes. For example, socially distributed knowledge is seen by some as having exempted humans from the forces of evolution by contributing to superior fitness. Others have noted that knowledge has more to do with opportunity than with fitness. The difference in perspective is explained by the effect of the term "fitness" to end inquiry by playing to a human frailty: the desire to dominate. This perspective is not available to those who choose not to reflect on the reasons for selecting the term "fitness."

Having identified exemplars of phenomena that interest us, we need to organize our myriad observations of these exemplars into a systemic structure that accounts for their behavior as a function of the system. We describe observed behavior in terms of a complex arrangement of specialized features that performs some useful function for the system. Complex functional organization is the evidence of specific opportunities that have been available to the system.

Views that both mind and body are part of the same integrated system, subject to the same organizing principles, are vigorously resisted. Understanding living, organic, organization is very different from understanding mechanical organization. Complete understanding of mechanisms is only found at the level of organic function. Diversity and opportunism can be seen as two components of evolution that explain all organizational properties of organisms. Diversity is functional in providing the configurations capable of exploiting new opportunities. Opportunism determines which of those possible configurations will survive. Propagation can be seen as a means of creating enough diversity that at least some of the variations find opportunity. These are themselves examples of the opportunities that hide in the choice of categories used in systemic description, allowing organic phenomena to be described simply and precisely.

Organic Systems

Behavior cannot be described independently of the knowledge of the acting organism. We must select terms that unite these two metaphysically separate realms into a single organic system. This system must then be united with the larger system, currently dominated by the concept of evolutionary development. Systemic descriptions of behavior and knowledge need not be equivalent, but they do need to be complementary. The metaphors employed for this purpose must be logically consistent. We are looking for a set of invariant relationships between knowledge "inputs" and behavioral "outputs." It is the logical description of a system of relationships that makes the description compelling. The description must also be consistent with neurological descriptions of the brain and causal descriptions of events in the real world. By this means, systemic descriptions of organic entities can have the same force as mathematical descriptions have for mechanical entities.

Organic descriptions can not be understood as complex functional systems without defining what we mean by "functional." Biology has supplied us with the means to unite conceptual models and theories and organs of perception in a single system where new evidence enables new systemic understanding. The tools of evolutionary functional analysis themselves function as an adjunct to perception, bringing the chaos of data we have on both knowledge and behavior into sharp focus as elements of a single organic system. Biology defines "successful outcomes" as the purpose for organic elements that contribute to survival or development of the entity. Thus knowledge and behavior can be seen as working together systemically to produce successful outcomes. This is what we mean by "functional."

Knowledge drawn from a nominally isolated discipline can therefore be used to discover integrative principles that can unite disparate descriptions into a single systemic model. Simple independent descriptions of "facts" will not be able to produce this kind of integration. We also see at work here the efficacy of reasoning from the whole to its parts. The problem of evolution can be broken down into the systemically integral parts of knowledge and behavior. These individual parts can then be described separately, so long as these descriptions do not violate logic at the evolutionary level.

This example shows how understanding of the distinct evolutionary states an organism has undergone can suggest hypothetical structures within which certain elements have changed while others have stayed the same. Such structures can be compared, one to the other, to determine which explains the data best. Notice that a functional description of knowledge and behavior does not determine what we will find in the physical structure of the brain. But whatever we find there must be consistent with organic function at the knowledge/behavior level. Note also that improvements we make in evolutionary understanding can change the way we see everything in the reorganized systemic elements.

Functional Organization

Functional organization in an organism evolves to exploit enduring properties of its environment or opportunities. Likewise, evolutionary changes in an organism work together with environmental conditions to accomplish the functional purposes of the larger ecology. So evolution can occur in the organism without specifically being induced by the environment. This might be interpreted as the organism creating opportunity by intentionally changing itself. Knowledge is one way we as humans create opportunity. It works because it is efficient. Costly genetic changes are not required in order for the organism to take advantage of opportunities. Only when environmental conditions recur over many generations do such complex genetic structures develop. However, the most complex genetic structure survives even when environmental conditions change unpredictably. They do not depend on genetic makeup to govern the way they behave; they depend on knowledge.

Knowledge exploits the world's perceived statistical structure. Our minds and our collective behavior can find opportunity in understanding enduring relationships in the world, even when everything around us is in chaos. We define kinds and types. We see objects as continuous in space and time. We analyze and parse events to distinguish causal relationships. We make an especially sharp distinction between animate and inanimate kinds of objects. Categorization is a powerful organizer of inference. Enduring structures found in the world are the means by which the mind identifies opportunities. It is no coincidence that our minds seem to have many of the same properties as the world. The structure of the world provides clearly observable evidence of the structure of the mind because the mind is where the world's structure comes from.

Systemic Models

Understanding that mind imposes necessary structure on the world is what gives descriptive and inferential power to systemic models. The following structural elements fit together to produce a complete systemic model:

    1. Purpose: a description of what counts as a successful outcome. A successful outcome for the organism may be described as the product of a successful outcomes for each of its component parts.

    2. Content: a description of the enduring structure of the world that is relevant to the organism's purpose. Obviously this would include a description of the organism itself. The organism would be described as embedded in a context providing choices, where correct choices support the purpose and incorrect choices threaten the purpose.

    3. Process: a description of the changes relevant to the purpose that occur in the organism and in its context as they interact. This description will predict that from certain states other specific states will emerge.

    4. Control: a description of criteria, relevant to the purpose, by which the structure and the changes that occur in it can be judged to be either supporting or threatening the purpose. Action on the part of the organism that brings the structure of the world or the changes within it in line with these criteria will result in successful outcomes.

These structural elements provide a framework for description of any organic system, explaining both its internal functions and its interaction with the larger system that surrounds it. These elements are infinitely changeable, allowing us to describe a system in any way that works to explain. Identifying these elements as enduring features of the world makes them, as a complete set, an analytical tool for organizing observations about the world into new knowledge. Using this method, entire classes of theory can be judged as being inadequate as systemic descriptions without having to question the validity of the data they are describing.

The functional, or systemic, approach to theoretical description of data is more productive than other approaches because it can be used to judge the usefulness of other theory addressing the same data, because it facilitates the incorporation of previously unknown data, and because it encourages questions that lead to development of complete and consistent explanations. Using this approach we can see any organism as an integrated collection of opportunity seeking suborganisms whose individual purposes are to fulfill the purpose of the larger organism, which in turn seeks opportunities to fulfill even larger purposes. Whether these organisms ultimately exist is not important. What is important is that our understanding of these organisms describe and explain the world around us in a way that enables us to predict and control it to the extent that we are given any opportunity at all to do so. This ability is not just limited to physical/chemical aspects of the world as is "natural" science, but includes individual people, communities and ecologies extending to the limits of the universe.

Human Ontology

Human description of "what is" resolves itself into an ontology, a functional structure comprising enduring universal features. The fundamental components of this structure are consciousness and world. Consciousness is located in the world in the "self." All the rest of the world is dominated by a set of objects relevant to but distinct from the self, the "other," the most relevant feature of which is the set of "other selves." The structure of this "other" is where we find systemic descriptions useful, even when it is configured to include the self. Approaching the self systemically, we find it is composed of a distinct set of subsystems:

    1. Real: what the self senses as the reality in which it is embedded.

    2. Ideal: what the self thinks about this reality.

    3. Literal: what the self with a collection of other selves records and communicates as their collective thinking about reality.

    4. Universal: a collectively agreed upon and shared understanding of reality.

    5. Actual: one of the dominant features of the universal is the proposition that a system exists independent of these other subsystems that all the other subsystems are working together to define.

This is a structure that is universal to human life. Such patterns are evidence to us that there are forces working on our individual selves that are not sensed by our selves as part of reality. We have hypothesized that these commonalities may be linked to other features we have in common, e.g., the number and configuration of characteristics like eyes or toes. We have, however, found real evidence that may account for these commonalities: the systemic explanation we accept is "genetics."

Genetics and Reality

We speculate (hypothesize) that genetics accounts not only for the number of toes we normally have, but also for some common characteristics of the way we see the world, or reality. Especially important is our particular ability as humans to exploit opportunities. We know many more things about the world than we know we know, and we are born with this knowledge. We are genetically prepared to understand our own ideas, especially those that are confirmed by others, as "real" and that everyone like ourselves sees the world the same way, the way it "really" is. We have come to understand, in a way miraculously, that how we structure our reality together is not explained by our observations alone. Some aspects of reality are imposed on us, not only by our genetic predisposition to structure reality individually, but by a predisposition to structure it collectively. As a single human meta-organism, we impose on the world a structure that emerges from what we collectively understand as the enduring features of our lives together.

The possible variations of what constitutes the structure of reality are so arbitrary that, if we did not have genetic commonalities, we would never be able to understand the behaviors of any independently developing groups of people, even those who live right next door. That we can understand our neighbors, and even our pets, can be attributed to our having genetic connections to them and commonalities with them. It is only by accumulated evidence of the differences in human realities and the perspective this has made possible, that we have come to understand the profound nature of the commonalities and been able to extend them to other living things and the ecologies beyond.

Organic vs. Mechanical

As noted above, a mechanical model is not sufficient to describe organic behavior. A more precise language and set of logical tools is needed to understand the complex relationship between knowledge and behavior. Seeking explanations to completely and consistently account for our observations has led many to conclude that consciousness contains pre-established structures highly oriented toward functionality, specifically human ontology, and collective-based epistemology. Although these structures are very influential in constructing reality, we still have the capability to reflect, individually and collectively, on their usefulness, and to change them, within limits, to achieve the most opportunity.

Because of the pre-established nature of these structures, some of them may be commonly felt to be more "natural" than others. Although the mechanical model felt very natural, and was used very successfully, during an era of industrialization, it does not feel natural when used to describe and explain people and ecologies that remain the most important problems we have to solve. This experience gives us important evidence about the functioning, and the structure, of the human mind.

Universal Structure

Where the human mind, and the structure of realities, are concerned, the possibilities are infinite. However, discovering opportunities and producing desirable outcomes specifically for humans is concerned with only a very small subset of these possibilities. Because achieving human purpose requires focussing on those possibilities that offer the most opportunity to humans, it is not advantageous to try out all the possibilities. This requires paying special attention to the specific circumstances that we face. If we can discover universal and enduring characteristics of these circumstances, there is nothing advantageous in itself of randomly variable behavior. Once we have a clearly defined purpose, we try to understand the context in which we will be acting, and decide on actions that not only will achieve the purpose, but that also can be modified according to specific criteria, along with our continually changing understanding of the context, to produce a successful outcome.

An organism that can generate a model of the world that transcends its genetic makeup can avoid otherwise certain destruction by discovering or creating opportunities that are not available to genetically bound organisms. In this case, the genetic makeup enabling this ability has become a general purpose tool, effective in a wide range of circumstances that can be described more specifically by the ability to model the world. An organism without this capability will be eliminated in many circumstances where the "knowledge producing" organism can remain. Organisms that survive and develop on the basis of knowledge alone can render themselves independent of their genetic constraints, the only limits being those very constraints on the ability to produce knowledge.

Universal features of the actuality in which we are embedded are captured in our genetic makeup. Necessary behavior in this historical context is inherited in the form of mechanisms. Thus the world is revealed to us in a context of objects both enduring and changing in space and time. We can understand there is nothing absolute about actuality being represented in this context but that we diverge from it at some risk. Recognizing the arbitrary nature of mechanisms for physical representation, we must also acknowledge the apparent efficacy of such representation in the fact of our existence. Questioning the efficacy of these mechanisms can open up new realms of opportunity, but at a cost. While we are in a state of doubt, we are vulnerable to circumstances that require sustained intentional action, i.e., no doubt. Referring to the former state as "learning" and the latter state as "acting," the criteria that effective learning requires doubt and that effective action requires no doubt, or complete confidence, establish an understandable interactive relationship between these two distinct states. Perfecting the action state entails enabling non-reflective employment of an understanding of the world that is as complete and consistent as possible. Perfecting the learning state entails enabling fully reflective and continuous incorporation of the data generated by action into complete and consistent understanding of the world. The mutually exclusive requirements of these two states means that perfecting their effective interaction will be itself a source of problems.

Action and Learning

We want action to be mechanism-based but we want that mechanism to be continually undergoing improvement as a result of comparing achieved results with intended results. Action and learning are therefore independent systems with independent content and independent processes that proceed together to achieve a single purpose. While we are reflecting, the effective content is considered "knowledge." While we are acting, a specific configuration of knowledge is considered the "real world." Thus the real world is an instantaneous state of the evolving content that is knowledge.

This content is given a specific structure by the mechanisms of human consciousness. This structure does not determine the content but organizes it into the form we understand as "rational." Structure organizes content from the general (wholes) to the specific (parts). Specifics are the details that insure the structure is complete, while generalities tie the specifics together into a single, consistent, but provisional, whole. During learning, this structure is (must be) explicit, while during action, the structure is (must be) implicit.

When we associate learning, conceived as an individual project, with epistemology, and associate action, also conceived as an individual project, with ontology, we see that these projects are never observed as the efforts of individuals in isolation from a collective. Effective universals are induced from specifics randomly distributed in time and space, and the individual, fixed in time and space, is a necessary but insufficient source of such specifics. Testimony must be collected from many such individuals before their shared understanding could be effectively universal. Therefore, much data must be recorded and many speculative inductions made by many individuals before a useful universal "law" emerges. Such projects are clearly collective, and not the result of work by a single individual alone.

Genetic mechanisms link organisms in common behaviors that join individuals in collective activities, e.g., procreation. However, because knowledge is arbitrary relative to genetic makeup, the genetic predisposition to achieve purposes collectively demands some means to share knowledge in a way that facilitates joint action based on knowledge. Thus, one individual is predisposed to recognize literal signs as evidence of another individual's knowledge and to incorporate that knowledge into their own. By this means, knowledge comes to be shared by those who have had no part in producing it, creating the conditions where the efficacity of specific knowledge is just as problematic as learning, but a different problem. Where knowledge has become the almost exclusive realm of creating opportunity, its control and use becomes strategic in interaction between groups that inhabit different collective realities.


The two concepts, "action" and "learning," are both human phenomena that require functional explanations in order to understand them and render them most efficacious. Disciplines that address such explanations polemically seek to explain these phenomena independently and separately in ways that, historically, have emphasized either matter or mind, and have been strongly prejudiced toward matter. The polemics have therefore ensued over reducing either mind to matter, or matter to mind. Evolved understanding of these two phenomena is just beginning to see the functionality of addressing them as integral parts of a single organic system that seeks opportunity, thereby fulfilling the purpose of a larger ecology. The resulting change in understanding has the potential to transform our world in completely unexpected ways, opening up broad new fields of opportunity.


Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L., Tooby, J. (1992). The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

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