Philosophy of Cognition: Topic9

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A Brief Intro[edit]

With Topic 9 we start off with the second and last part of this course. In this topic we will try to understand a little bit better what evolution of cognition is about. Intuitively, evolution is about a kind of past - our ancestors or about how things used to look like in a remote past. But to be a bit more precise, we might say that evolution is about modifications or changes occurring in time. But what kind of modifications or changes?

An example might help us answer that question. Consider for instance your favorite computer, say, a shinny mac book pro bought in 2011. Now, go back in time and see your laptop’s ancestors. The macbook did change in time. But is that change the result of an evolutionary process?

Now, look at any of your body parts, say, your feet. You certainly have bigger feet than when you were a little kid. However, they are not different in kind. But how about your feet and the ones of our ancestors who used to climb and jump from one tree to another? They are different in kind. For instance, yours are no longer able to grasp anything. Is that change the result of an evolutionary process? Is there any difference with the macbook “evolution”?

There are probably two major differences that really matter. The first is that the macbook doesn’t have any relations with its ancestors. Whereas we are all, to various extent, descending from the same common ancestor. The second is that all the macbook have a designer, maybe not the same one. Whereas in the case of our body, there is no designer behind the scene. Having a common ancestor and the absence of a designer are two among the major features characterizing evolution as “descent with modification”. So, to look into how a particular “thing” evolves means to see how a process of descending with modification might have occurred.

Technically speaking, the kind of “descent with modification” we are talking about is described by four major features that are: multiplication, variation, heredity, and competition. Multiplication refers to the fact that an entity can reproduce and in doing so it can give two, three or more others. Variation accounts for the fact that not all entities are identical. Heredity means that different entities will produce different entities. So, for instance, entities of type A will produce entities of type A, whereas entities of type B will produce entities of type B. The last feature is competition. Competition refers to the fact that a given variation has different consequences in terms of survival and multiplication for the entities that inherited it.

So, generally speaking, in order an entity to evolve it should exhibit these four major features. We will see in the next topic how this will be fundamental to figure out how evolution of cognition might have occurred.


Describe a case where the term "evolution" is used metaphorically.


What is natural selection?

What is an adaptation?

Compulsory readings[edit]

Recommended readings[edit]

E. Jablonka and M. J. Lamb, The Transformation of Darwinism, in Id., Evolution in Four Dimensions. Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. MIT Press. Available at: