Reason.tv: Stone Age Minds—A conversation with evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby


Based at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara,  Leda Cosmides and John Tooby are two pioneers and leading lights in the field of evolutionary psychology. This multidisciplinary approach seeks to develop a better understanding of human nature by taking seriously the idea that our brains evolved to solve a variety of adaptive problems routinely faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

While our "stone age minds" have programs that are very good at things like detecting lies, attracting mates and avoiding predators, they are in many ways ill equipped for the kind of complex market-based society that we live in today. The lens of evolutionary psychology, for example, provides insights into why so many people in industrialized countries are overweight and sympathetic to socialist ideas.

Reason.tv's Paul Feine sat down with Cosmides and Tooby to learn more about evolutionary psychology, the history of the field, and the implications for our society.

Approximately 10 minutes. Produced by Paul Feine; shot by Alex Manning and Hawk Jensen; edited by Paul Feine and Alex Manning.

For an extended version of this interview, go here or scroll down.

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NEXT: This Week in Innocence

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  1. ROGULSKI: Why are you here?

    WOMAN #1: To get some money.

    ROGULSKI: What kind of money?

    WOMAN #1: Obama money.

    ROGULSKI: Where’s it coming from?

    WOMAN #1: Obama.

    ROGULSKI: And where did Obama get it?

    WOMAN #1: I don’t know, his stash. I don’t know. (laughter) I don’t know where he got it from, but he givin’ it to us, to help us.

    WOMAN #2: And we love him.

    WOMAN #1: We love him. That’s why we voted for him!

    WOMEN: (chanting) Obama! Obama! Obama! (laughing)

    ROGULSKI: Did you get an application to fill out yet?

    WOMAN: I sure did. And I filled it out, and I am waiting to see what the results are going to be.

    ROGULSKI: Will you know today how much money you’re getting?

    WOMAN: No, I won’t, but I’m waiting for a phone call.

    ROGULSKI: Where’s the money coming from?

    WOMAN: I believe it’s coming from the City of Detroit or the state.

    ROGULSKI: Where did they get it from?

    WOMAN: Some funds that was forgiven (sic) by Obama.

    ROGULSKI: And where did Obama get the funds?

    WOMAN: Obama getting the funds from… Ummm, I have no idea, to tell you the truth. He’s the president.

    ROGULSKI: In downtown Detroit, Ken Rogulski, WJR News.

  2. Scientists talk a good game but then they show up for the interview wearing suspenders and it’s out the window with the credibility.

    1. I thought suspenders went with the territory, but then I went to MIT.
      I find whole topic absolutely fascinating.
      But then that’s me.

      1. Making the case for evolutionary psychology: this thread has 3 comments (including 1 by me) and the next article with the naked woman has, well, now 79.

        1. It’s Thursday, technically already the weekend. Minds are too burnt to think hard on the topic.

          That said, I, too, find the topic fascinating. It’s rekindling my thoughts on the maximum size of familial/social groups and the capacity for individuals to feel altruistic in relationship to group size.

          1. I’ve loved this topic since I took an animal behavior course in college. E.O. Wilson makes for some great reading on this topic. He said (I paraphrase): “Marx was correct, socialism works great, it is just that he had the wrong species.” (Wilson was an ANT specialist). My problem was always with the word “altruism”. Many people believe if you help your children, that it is altruism. The course I took in college, however, looked at it from an evolutionary approach, and since your children carry your genes, you are actually helping yourself by helping them. This also applies to anyone related to you (siblings, cousins, etc). The degree of benefit to you (your genes) varying with the degree of relatedness. Even helping out a non-related friend isn’t truly altruistic if there is an expectation of reciprocal behavior.

            1. Actually, when you help your kids, it is altruism from your point of view, but pure selfishness from your genes’ point of view. They have been programmed by natural selection to cause you to sacrifice yourself for the sake of getting themselves into the next generation.

              Part of this programming is to make you feel good about this sacrifice, which I guess in a Randian sense, means that you aren’t “sacrificing”, you are just trading a higher value (the success of your kids) for a lesser value (your own welfare). But, did you make this value judgement rationally? Or, was your mind helplessly programmed to put your kids’ welfare above yours? . . . . . .

              If you become aware of this kind of evolutionary programming, and decide to rebel against it, are you then being selfish? If this is being selfish, why do you then feel unhappy emotionally?

              Or is rebelling against your evolutionary programming actually altruistic? Isn’t such rebellion sacrificing your deepest values, which should properly align with your status as a disposable reproduction machine?

              If a robot consciously rejects his primary programming, is he acting selfishly or altruistically? Does it matter how he feels about this?

              1. Great post. Good questions all.

  3. Science H Logic! This was an awesome video! The very best Reason TV I have seen. Clearly Tim didn’t WTFV or he wouldn’t have cared what the guy was wearing.

    Adam Smith and the invisible hand?! Those who have been unable to adapt to the modern world simply can’t understand it. There are two kinds of people, those who have Stone Age minds, and those who have been able to adapt and appreciate that the market makes everyone rich, even if it doesn’t fit into the hunter-gatherer mentality.

    While I admit there could be a tad of confirmation bias involved here, they made some really good points. Every Leftard in-law that I have is going to get a link to this.

    It makes sense, too. Chony/MNG and the like do seem to have the minds of Stone Age men, unable to appreciate the benefits of the horrible, man-eat-man market. “It makes people wealthy”…”but my prehistoric mind can’t understand!”

    1. Yeah, this was one of my favorite ReasonTV videos too. Right up there with that long interview with Robert Samuelson.

    2. Cripes. I worry for your stone-aged mind if you feel like this gives you weapons in your partisan battles. Indeed, partisan battles seem to be most easily explained as a result of the stone-aged mind’s legacy.

      1. I worry for your stone-aged mind if you feel like this gives you weapons in your partisan battles.

        Partisan? A person can’t hold or argue ideological beliefs without being a partisan?

        See, your response is evidence that they are correct in their assessment. As a Leftist, you simply can’t imagine that individualism might actually be superior to collectivism. So it is all about partisan points, because the Stone Age mind simply can’t accept that individuals don’t follow the clan, tribe, herd. Anything outside your herd mentality must be “partisan”.

  4. I find this field incredibly useful. It takes the opposite approach of most psychology. Instead of coming up with theory and using it to explain behavior, it looks at behavior and tries to find out why. It’s explanations can often be ridiculous, but they are based upon observation, not rationalization. The observations are the valuable part. People constantly say one thing and then do another.

    Controversial example:

    psychology: Rape is about power. Statements from actual rapists are then used to back up this theory.

    evolutionary psychology: Rape can result in procreation. (In some mammals it is the primary means of procreation) Therefore, rape must be at least partially about sex. Power isn’t excluded from the equation, but simple observation indicates that the popular psychological theory is incomplete.

    It recognizes that we are not rational animals, but rather rationalizing animals.

    1. Consider relevance to what was written above to the same-sex marriage discussion — come to think of it, all issues and controversies re marriage.

    2. Even there, you’re talking about two different things. Rape can be “about power” in terms of the mental experience of the rapist, while still being “about sex” in terms of why he is driven by a sex-power impulse. That is, evolution explains why people exhibit certain behaviors, but not necessarily the physical or mental mechanisms that realize those behaviors.

      1. What I’m saying is that the mental mechanisms are almost useless for determining motivation, as they are continually subject to revision through rationalization. If you use those rationalizations as support of your theories, you are wasting your time. Evo-psyche will never go as far afield as, say Freud did. If you start with the observation, you’re halfway there already.

        1. But in terms of thinking about therapy or brainwashing or what-have-you, knowing what the mechanisms are and how they work is more useful than knowing why they were selected for. I love reading about evolutionary psychology, but neuropsychology will probably surpass it in importance over time as we develop the means to go from the level of patterns of neural impulses to something that humans can recognize as “thoughts”.

          1. But in terms of thinking about therapy or brainwashing or what-have-you, knowing what the mechanisms are and how they work is more useful than knowing why they were selected for.

            Agreed. But until you can get people to stop rationalizing, you’re never going to know what the mechanisms actually are. Most psychology is crap because they think that they know the mechanisms, when all they actually know is the rationalizations. Socialization, for example, long thought to be the answer to damn near everything, doesn’t really affect the impulses, just the later rationalizations.

  5. A great video. Made me think about human reaction in a whole new light. …And lose faith in the possibility of humankind coming around to a comfortableness with freedom 🙁

  6. These authors are not entirely honest. Behavioral psychology (based on learning theory) is predominately research-based and is rooted in science. Cognitive psychology is somewhat mentalistic (though nothing like psychodynamic theories), but is also grounded in some research.

    Evolutionary psychology doesn’t adequately tackle the centrality of language and verbal conditioning that accompanies respondent & operant conditioning, and social learning (imitation) all of which combine to influence and control behavior. Biology plays its role, but an individual’s social environment predominates in shaping behavior. One of the biggest differences between humans and non-verbal animals is our ability to frame relationally and apply symbolic meaning to arbitrary sounds (the transformation of stimulus functions of language). This crucial difference is what makes human behavior far more complex than with non-verbal animals.

    1. These mechanisms are used for rationalization, and not the initial impulse. The constant erosion of personal responsibility in our society causes more and more people to act upon their impulses (few consequences for doing otherwise). Our verbal abilities merely allow us to lie about it later. If you root it in the verbal, you get useless theories. For examples, see: video games, rock music, comic books, etc..

      1. Our verbal abilities allow us to create rules for behavior, such as the non-aggression principle. Language has an immense organizing effect on behavior. To deny it is simply futile.

        1. I’m not denying that our verbal abilities allow us to create rules for behavior. I’m saying that our verbal abilities have no affect on our impulses. You’re talking about impulse control, which takes place after the fact.

          1. You’re mistaken. People use cognitive processes to regulate impulses all the time. Moreover, impulses are influenced and regulated by operant conditioning. For example, you may have the impulse to eat a piece of chocolate cake, but cognitive processes influence your behavior by planning to not gain weight.

            Evolution may provide us with our impulses, but verbal, respondent, and operant conditioning regulate these impulses as part of our larger behavioral repetoire.

            1. The two are not mutually exclusive. The *ability* to allow language and our environment in general to influence *was itself selected for by evoluation via natural selection*. People who take evo psych to be *only* about base impulses and then show how that doesn’t explain human behavior and in particular the effect of environment are creating a false strawman and then knocking it down. Evo-psych *predicts* that our environments – including the language that is coming from the other people in our environment – effects our behavior.

              The way I think about it is in terms of “knobs”. The “strict form” of evo psych allows for no knobs; it just says that in circumstance X, people will do action Y because that is pre-programmed. But imagine now that what we have instead are knobs that can be turned by our experience and environment, something like “in circumstance X, this person has Y percent chance of doing Z”, where the “Y” is the knob. The actual value for Y – and therefore the person’s behavior and personality – are a function of an initial genetic setting and then subsequent resetting by our environment. However, the existence of the knob itself, and the algorithm by which its value gets reset, are genetic. The overall behavior of the individual is a combination of genetics and environment, but the effect of the environment is not willy-nilly or coming from mysticism or the ether, it is still controlled by natural selection. This is just simple application of evo-pysch. It’s clear in many cases, e.g. the chances that a person will “defect” from civil society – that is, become a thief, say – is both a function of their genetics and their environment, but the fact that the knob *can* be determined by the environment is itself an evolutionary adaptation, existing because when one is in a successful situation, it is less advantageous to take risky behaviors like stealing than one is in a desperate situation. IOW: poor people have a larger drive to steal than rich people. It’s an easy and correct prediction made by evo-psych, but it’s not the “strict” form of evo-psych, because it’s not trying to say something universal like “all people want to steal”, it’s making an evo-pysch argument for adaptive behavior.

    2. Steven Pinker has put language into an evolutionary psychological framework in ways you may find pleasing. The Organization of Learning, by Randy Gallistel takes an explicitly evolutionary approach to conditioning. If you’re interested in how evolutionary psychologists think about these issues I’d recommend them.

  7. Positive feelings with regard to socialist policies are an atavistic impulse unsuited to civilised life?

    Sounds about right.

  8. Haim Ofek’s book, Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution, touches on some of the same themes.

    Review (.pdf)

  9. Haim Ofek’s book, Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution, touches on some of the same themes.

    Review (.pdf)

  10. Haim Ofek’s book, Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution, touches on some of the same themes.

  11. Haim Ofek’s book, Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution, touches on some of the same themes.

  12. Haim Ofek’s book, Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution, touches on some of the same themes.

    (You’ll have to Google it. The spam filter won’t let me post a link. 🙁 )

  13. I loved this. I cant wait to start school next year.

  14. Evo-psych has been one of the most influential concepts in my intellectual development (a development that also led me to libertarinism/anarcho capitalism). I am so thoroughly convinced that there is a huge amount for us to learn by thinking about pyschology from a natural selection perspective that people who “don’t get it” are as hard for me to understand as those who still insist that there are ghosts in the sky that we need to please or be in some sort of peril, or those that still don’t “get” evolution in general. I really just think that a worldview that doesn’t include evo-psych is one that is missing a huge piece of the puzzle.

    1. Ya I love it.

    2. “…people who “don’t get it” are as hard for me to understand as those who still insist that there are ghosts in the sky that we need to please…”

      Thank you for saying this. I completely agree, but I have always attributed it toward some kind of ‘hyper-religion.’ A religious person is someone who holds a belief in the absence of evidence. A hyper-religious person is one who holds a belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

      The fact that some people who are very intelligent exhibit hyper-religious attitudes is amazing to me.

  15. This is truly the best video I’ve seen on here in ages… It’s funny, I was reading The Fatal Conceit earlier today, and Hayek makes essentially the same argument: our moral impulses evolved in a hunter-gatherer society that prizes solidarity and mutual support, while our social mores evolved in a separate process to give us a market society based on exchange and specialization. The disconnect between the two leads to our susceptibility to fascism and socialism. Nice to see empirical psychology confirming a great insight, and adding to our arsenal of knowledge even more.


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  17. Thank you! This goes so well with the “What do Liberals and ten year olds have in common”
    I love it. A smack to head with the invisible hand !

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  19. Yes, fuck socialism and the dumb bastards who promote it….like Obama!

    1. Look. Obama’s “socialist” legislation 20 years ago would have been “the Republican alternative” to Democratic legislation. Like the insurance mandate. Like cap and trade. Get your heads out of your asses. Calling him a socialist just makes real socialists laugh, and besides you’re just using it as a pejorative, because you’re an idiot.

      1. So, none of his policies are socialist? Or should we only focus on his privatizing of Nasa, the only free-market impulse he’s had while he’s been in office?

  20. He said (I paraphrase): “Marx was correct, socialism works great, it is just that he had the wrong species.” (Wilson was an ANT specialist).

    Ants are the perfect example of a self-organizing, complex system. They are the antithesis of socialism and bureaucracy. Good lord.

    Two simple things would save the country; repealing the 17th amendment and privatizing education.

    We have a moral and economic bankrupt edifice designed to serve academics instead of education. It is the most captured, ideological sector of our society, bastardized by government money. And they point their finger at Big Oil funding research. What a hypocritical joke.

    1. Socialism is, IN THEORY, a system in which all work for the good of the group. In practice, with humans, it doesn’t work. The quote was an attempt to illustrate the biological reason why. Ants in the same colony share most of the same genetic material, humans in society do not.

      1. I understood what your professor was trying to say, but respectfully, he was fundamentally wrong.

        Imagine an ant colony using food as money, in exchange for which they gain housing, security and DNA preservation.

        Ants are the definition of self-organizing anarcho-capitalism; there is NO government. They resemble today’s open source community, whose members often mistakenly believe they form a benevolent form of socialism. They do not. They are the definition of a free market. Even their contributions conform to power laws.

        It is the opposite of socialism, which relies on theft by government and redistribution. Socialism also pits human against human (worker against bourgeoisie / manager) which is antithetical to free markets and ant colonies.

        Ants are totally self-preservative. When they war, they send the weak and infirm first. They are the anti-thesis of bureaucracy. They are adaptive, emergent and self-autonomous. An ant colony is not the perfect example of a group living in the ‘commons.’ They will kill anything that threatens their livelihood, including their own; they are cannibalistic.

        Socialism isn’t just wrong because it doesn’t understand ‘equality.’ It’s wrong because it doesn’t understand bureaucracy, which suppresses creativity and emergence. Even an ant knows that:)

        I responded with a diatribe because I believe a lot of progressives don’t understand what they really stand for; they see themselves as empathetic social engineers.

        They are wrong on both counts. Empathy without demanding independence engenders perpetual reliance, and social engineering without autonomy is a static prison. If ants had a bureaucracy, they’d all starve to death.

  21. I thought it was a really unique point that people want to believe in the socialist ideal because it conforms with hunter-gatherer instincts, but in an actual socialist system, the people in charge really DON’T know you and DON’T care about you, despite the attempt to make people 8feel* as if society cares abouyt them by adding all these welfare programs.

  22. DR. MURRAY BOWEN DEVELOPED AN EVOLUTIONARY theory of human functioning in the 1950s to 80s.
    see: http://www.thebowencenter.org/index.html. It might help inform your work.

  23. All good stuff. I noticed though, the edited version has shots of crowds, traffic, people shopping. I hated it. Granted these two aren’t much to look at but please don’t feed me generic footage…

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