Monday, February 10, 2014

The evolved apprentice - book summary

Sterelny, K. (2012). The evolved apprentice: How evolutionmade humans unique. Cambridge, MA; London, UK: MIT Press.

This was the first book I explored in the area of evolutionary psychology. Mainly because my various digital alert systems search for ‘apprentic*’ and this book came up a few times via various alerts. I parked the book for summer reading and am happy I did finally make time to study it in greater detail. This book is easier reading than Sterelny’s previous book ‘Thought in a hostile world’ as briefly over viewed in last week's blog. “Evolved apprentice’ concentrates on the ‘social intelligence hypothesis'. Examples from primate studies, archaeology and ethnography are used through the book to illustrate the thesis. In summary, the book explores how the human brain evolved due to the need to learn quickly to cope with a challenging environment. Living together in family groups provided proto-humans with the opportunity to learn from each other. This ensured ‘technology’ was not lost from one generation to the next and small incremental improvements or flashes of inspiration could be actioned.

The book has 8 chapters. Short summaries of each chapter follow:

1)      Challenge of novelty – the social intelligence hypothesis is summarised and discussed. The need for increased learning in early hominids was premised on the increasing complexity of tasks required to sustain the hunter-gatherer life. Humans have many needs requiring reciprocity in group relationships. Division of labour within human groupings both horizontally and vertically required specialised communication skills. Humans also are comparatively long lived, with good memories leading to options for inter-generational verbal transmission of cultural skills. Learning of social skills also involve learning both the good and bad about human nature.

2)      Accumulating cognitive capital – precepts of the apprentice leaning model are discussed in this chapter. The 4 virtues of apprentice learning are identified and discussed. Virtues are: apprenticeship learning can be structured incrementally; complex tasks and high-fidelity / high band-with knowledge can be learnt; skill transmission may occur ‘informally’ without adult teaching or formal explicit instruction; and ethnographic studies have shown that learning through apprenticeship works – due to reciprocal balance between productivity and returns from learner.  

3)      Adapted individuals, adapted environments – here the understandings of Sapiens and Neanderthal evolution are unravelled to explain why one species carried on and the other became extinct. One explanation is the ability of sapiens to think symbolically and this allowed concepts to be carried from one generation to the next. At various stages, abrupt ‘technological leaps’ occurred, pushing development of sapiens ahead. These innovations were not lost from one generation to the next but were then further refined, leading to sufficient knowledge accumulation to allow for the next progressive leap.

4)      Human cooperation syndrome – co-evolution of “cooperation, information-guided foraging and niche construction” of context specific knowledge are premised to have been the difference between hominins and other apes. The ‘grandmother hypothesis’ is put forward as one advantage hominins could use to advance. Grandmothers provided a source for intergenerational knowledge. They also were able to mind young children while parents hunted / foraged, increasing the group’s ability to maintain a sustainable life. Activities like foraging and hunting required more complex communication techniques. Laying down the ground work for evolution to select for a species which had brains to handle the needs of cooperation and group living.

5)      Costs and commitments -  this chapter tidies up loose ends in the social intelligence hypothesis. For example why ‘freeloaders’, bullies etc. and their opposites of altruism have evolved. The cost of cooperation is weight up with the advantages afforded. Costs may be investments for the future and honesty creates long-term advantages perhaps not for the individual but for the larger group.

6)      Signals, cooperation and learning – here the discussion expands on the role of signals and communication and the role of honesty. Cultural learning’s advantages and disadvantages are discussed.

7)      From skills to norms – the ethical connotations to the social intelligence hypothesis are introduced and discussed in this chapter. Why and how morals have developed and how they are learnt, transmitted through cultural norms and the implications are introduced and extended.

8)      Cooperation and conflict – this last chapter, brings the various contributions to the social intelligence hypothesis to a close. The need for how humans have evolved to  acknowledge ‘give and take’ and how individuals, societies etc, balance ‘strong reciprocity’ brings the book to a close.

The book has notes for each chapter, 25 pages of references and index. References provide good overview of the relevant literature from anthropology, archaeology, ethnographical studies and evolutionary psychology. All in, the book provides good background leavened with many pertinent examples from contemporary work on understanding how evolutionary pressures of our pre-history contributed to how we now communicate, learn and live.

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