Evo-blogs

Evolutionary matters will figure prominently in this blog so I thought I’d see what other evo-blogs there were around. There’s a list here. There seems to be a lot of discussion of creationism in the blogosphere, which is somewhat depressing — though I suppose it helps to keep evolutionary theorists on their toes. For some patient reivews and rebuttals of the anti-Darwinian literature, see Gert Korthof’s site. In one of his reviews Korthof points out that perhaps the most powerful piece of evidence for common descent is the universality, not of DNA nor of the proteins it codes for, but of the code that translates one into the other. Since this code is pretty much arbitrary, its uniformity across the natural world strongly testifies to a common origin. That may not be news to many people but it hadn’t clicked with me before. Interesting site.

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Wilson on the unconscious

I’ve been reading Timothy Wilson’s book, too. I think it’s life-changing and have been recommending it to all my friends. Although Wilson has no sympathy for the details of Freudian theory, his outlook is broadly Freudian in the sense that he thinks we need to look to the unconscious level for explanations of much of our behaviour (not just pathological behaviour, but routine everyday stuff). The book is also Freudian in having a therapeutic angle. Wilson thinks that if we understand the sources of our behaviour better we shall be more at ease with ourselves, and he outlines some strategies we can use for gaining self-knowledge. A major theme of the book is that introspection is not a good route to self-knowledge — being distorted by our self-conscious theories about ourselves, which are often just wishful thinking. A stranger may be able to predict your behaviour better than you can, since you’re more likely behave as the average person would than you are to act in accordance with your idealized image of yourself. (Wilson also outlines evidence that people overestimate both how much pleasure they will get from positive life events and how misery from negative ones. We are programmed to stay on an even keel, he suggests. I find that rather comforting.)

Tom asks about the role of personal-level stuff. I don’t think it has to be merely post-hoc commentary. It can have effects on subpersonal processing and may bias behaviour in important ways. Wilson talks about the advantages of adopting a positive self-image. Dennett has a similar story about the role of inner vebalization, and I’ve got my own version, too, which won’t I peddle here. The crucial point is that even if non-conscious processing is doing the immediate work, the conscious mind can still be an influential back-seat driver.

Adaptive unconscious

Hi

I have recently read Timothy Wilson’s book, Strangers to Ourselves, and David Livingstone Smith’s book, Why We Lie.

Both books note the idea/fact that a huge amount (most) of our psychological functioning is unconscious (and a product of natural selection) and both books try to understand the link between this machinery and the conscious level stuff that we also produce (again, the product of natural selection). In this sense, both authors are in the business of reinvigorating the Freudian project, but they are doing it under the auspices of some version of evolutionary psychology.

I don’t want to relate the detail of the books now (I am writing a review of Smith currently so will be happy to at some point in the future) but I wanted to initiate a discussion about this Freudian project. What interests me at the moment are questions pertaining to how we can even begin working on such a project. Personal level outpourings are hard to capture, hard to characterise and so forth, and all this makes noting their function a tough task; made all the harder by the fact that there is a deal of ambiguity in the underlying intentions of any personal level communication, I assume.

What I will say about the books is this: Wilson (especially from his work with Nisbett) sees a disjunction between the unconscious processing and the intentionality of the personal level. The personal level processing happens after the decision has already been made by the unconscious stuff, and may well have an element of confabulation etc. What then is the role of this personal level stuff? Smith argues that it can act, in certain specific situations, as a signal to others. So, both authors note that subtle social messages are conveyed through apparently oblique narratives used in social discourse and Smith thinks this may be a way of alerting others to social deviants etc. without drawing attention to the signalling.

How might ideas such as Smith’s be more fully worked up and tested?

I will stop here as I simply wanted to throw this set of ideas and questions out into blog-space and see what people thought.

All the best

Tom

Welcome

This blog is run by Tom Dickins and Keith Frankish. The central topic is evolutionary psychology, but the remit extends in two directions to cover cognitive science generally and evolutionary theory. The content will reflect the research interests of the registered contributors to the blog. Comments are welcome but please note that the owners will delete comments they regard as objectionable. Enjoy!