Here’s an illuminating book review. We are increasingly seeing two streams of Darwinism — one which says there’s no problem reconciling it with religion; the other which sees the two as completely incompatible. As the reviewer notes: “Stanovich takes the hard line that accepting darwinism has to mean opposing virtually all religious beliefs. He praises fundamentalists as recognizing this point while arguing that mainline churches do not see the incompatibility of science with religion.”Ã‚Â Ã‚Â
Book Review: A rebellious revolution
Gordon M. Burghardt
Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Volume 21, Issue 10 , October 2006, Pages 537-538
Keith E. Stanovich, The Robot’s Rebellion: Finding Meaning in an Age of Darwin, University of Chicago Press (2005) ISBN 0 226 77125 3 US$18.00 pbk (374 pages).
Ã‚Â The Robot’s Rebellion introduces major findings of cognitive psychology, including decision making, heuristics, evolutionary modules and memes, to address the metaphysical and epistemological challenges of darwinism for systems of human belief. The opening chapter disappoints, however, as it sets forth Dawkin’s selfish gene versus vehicle view of evolution virtually unaltered after 30 years of intervening research. There is the generic slapdown of group selection, the admittedly anthropomorphic treatment of the wants, needs and desires of genes, and no mention of gene-environment interactions, evo-devo, or phenotypic plasticity. The extensive notes show that the author is aware of complications that he largely ignores in the text to make his polemical points starker. However, if you read on, you will be rewarded.
Ã‚Â The premise argued in the following six chapters is that human psychology is under the control of two, often competing, cognitive systems (‘a brain at war with itself’). One is in service primarily of our genes and only incidentally adaptive to the individual (vehicle). It is given the acronym TASS (for the awkward ‘The Autonomous Set of Systems’), a set of cognitive processes that are quick, unreflective and mandatory, and which include innate and learned habitual responses. The second system, the Analytic System (AS), enables the vehicle (individual) to override robotic TASS: relying on ‘gut instincts makes us little more than slaves of the mindless replicators’. The AS enables humans (and only humans) to rebel. Complicating the story, however, is the existence of memes which, similar to TASS, can manipulate individuals to act against their own interests (many political and religious beliefs), although many memes, such as those involved in technology (the wheel), health and safety are advantageous to individuals and essential to cultural advance. These ideas are supported by references to recent studies in cognitive science and philosophy. Intriguing examples are also given useful for class discussion. It is scary that 70% of university students think this syllogism is logical: all living things need water; roses need water; therefore roses are living things. Stanovich usefully clears up many misconceptions about rational thinking and TREE readers would find this most useful in teaching controversial topics.
Ã‚Â However, there are three problems with The Robot’s Rebellion. The final chapter, ‘A soul without mystery,’ harks back to the subtitle of the book and consists mainly of the ruminations of numerous philosophers with nary an evolutionary biologist or ethologist in sight. The meaning of life is located in being able to question a ‘first order preference’ (e.g. I like to smoke) by considering the health costs and thus developing a ‘second order preference’ (I prefer to prefer not to smoke), which can lead to a ‘third order preference’ (I prefer to smoke more than I prefer my preference not to smoke). Although these preferences can escalate to even higher levels, Stanovich thankfully stops at the third level. But the exercise does enable him to develop the concept of meta-rationality, which he claims is the source of rational integration that humans, but no other animals, have.
Ã‚Â The second problem is that, like so many before him, Stanovich wants to uncover the trait that really distinguishes humans from other animals. Humans, unlike chimpanzees and other species, code much more contextual information into their decision making. In fact, we alone use ‘symbolic utility’ (‘a symbolic action that stands for the utility of something else’) in making judgments. Unfortunately, no data are used to support these conclusions: just the TASS and memes that Stanovich earlier cautioned us against accepting without using our analytic powers. Thus, a familiar secondhand 90-year-old anecdote about chimpanzees is used, but all recent work on ape cognition is ignored. Indeed, if claims such as equity aversion in capuchin monkeys withstand scrutiny 1, 2 and 3, a major plank of Stanovich’s anthropocentrism disintegrates. As for the assertion that animals lack the ability to use symbols in making decisions, it is as if all the work on courtship, threat displays, nuptial gifts, ritualization and other phenomena did not exist. The problem gets even worse, for Stanovich is forced to argue that nonhuman animals are more rational than humans because they use classic instrumental rationality to serve their needs whereas humans, although smart, actually act dumber (‘dysrationalia’). It is about time that psychologists forego the species essentialism that Ernst Mayr fought against so vigorously.
Ã‚Â The final problem with The Robot’s Rebellion might keep some from using it as a textbook. Stanovich takes the hard line that accepting darwinism has to mean opposing virtually all religious beliefs. He praises fundamentalists as recognizing this point while arguing that mainline churches do not see the incompatibility of science with religion. This approach is counterproductive and is also arguably bad theology. We need to have enough self-confidence in our science that its implications will become apparent without attacking those who are sympathetic to knowledge and are, unlike the adherents of creationism and intelligent design, open to serious discussion of modern biology.
Ã‚Â These criticisms notwithstanding, The Robot’s Rebellion is a fine introduction to modern cognitive psychology that I heartily recommend to biologists unfamiliar with modern cognitive science. The author takes evolution seriously, even if from a flawed anthropocentric stance incorporating a revamped instinct-intelligence dichotomy.
1 S.F. Brosnan and F.B.M. de Waal, Monkeys reject unequal pay, Nature 27 (2003), pp. 297-299.
2 P.G. Roma et al., Capuchin monkeys, inequity aversion, and the frustration effect, J. Comp. Psychol. 120 (2006), pp. 67-73.
3 S.F. Brosnan and F.B.M. de Waal, Partial support from a nonreplication: comment on Roma, Silberberg, Ruggerio, and Suomi, J. Comp. Psychol. 120 (2006), pp. 74-75.