Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Maladaptive beliefs?

Culture profoundly alters human evolution, but not because culture is learned. Rather, culture entails a novel evolutionary tradeoff. Social learning allows human populations to accumulate reservoirs of adaptive information over many generations, leading to the cumulative cultural evolution of highly adaptive social institutions and technology. Because this process is much faster than genetic evolution, it allows human populations to evolve cultural adaptations to local environments, an ability that was a masterful adaptation to the chaotic, rapidly changing world of the Pleistocene. However, the same psychological mechanisms that create this benefit necessarily come with a built in cost. To get the benefits of social learning, humans have to be credulous, for the most part accepting the ways that they observe in their society as sensible and proper. Such credulity opens up human minds to the spread of maladaptive beliefs. Tinkering with human psychology can lessen this, but it cannot be eliminated without also losing the adaptive benefits of cumulative cultural evolution.

(Robert Boyd & Peter J Richerson, Culture, Adaptation & Innateness.)

4 comments:

alice said...

Yep, I can see why you are asking about maladaptive beliefs because they go on to say that the maladaptive beliefs somehow lead to adaptive benefits and so we don't want to tinker with them too much.

OK, I'm convinced.

Paul Turner said...

I read it as saying that the mechanisms which proliferate adaptive beliefs can also proliferate maladaptive beliefs.

I take your point though that good things can come from flawed beliefs. My specific interest on this blog is the investigation into what I consider to be the maladaptive belief of essentialism, or more accurately, the over-extension of essentialism. Good has certainly come from essentialism but when it is extended beyond, say, chemical elements into culture, race, and individuals, more fuel seems to be added to the mindsets which, amongst other things, sustain conflict.

alice said...

"Such credulity opens up human minds to the spread of maladaptive beliefs. Tinkering with human psychology can lessen this, but it cannot be eliminated without also losing the adaptive benefits of cumulative cultural evolution."

Actually I was commenting on the silliness of the term "maladaptive beliefs" which I thought you were also commenting on in your title.

That apparently was an "erroneous belief".

Ian recommended your site to me and I am enjoying it.I am new to the term essentialism, but I have some sense if its meaning from reading your essays.

Paul Turner said...

I must confess I didn't see the silliness! I think he's saying that credulity shouldn't be tinkered with too much. Maybe I'm missing something.

Anyway, I think the word maladaptive is a good one to describe ideas that have been useful but are now stale and restrictive. I also like the way it casts ideas and beliefs in an evolutionary light where adaptation is generally seen as a primary driver.

I'm glad you have found some meaning in my posts. I effectively use the blog as a place to make notes which others might be interested in so don't expect everything to be fully thought through or anything!