Week 6: Heyes (2012) Grist and mills: on the cultural origins of cultural learning

After the speculative nature of the previous paper (Iriki & Taoka 2012)  we decided to focus in on a more concrete examination of how enculturation could take place. Of particular note, myself and a few other people felt like we needed to read something on cultural learning – since this is a core feature of how niche construction is mediated.

In this paper Cecelia Heyes argues against the notion that cultural learning is dependent on innate learning modules which are geared towards conspecifics in a variety of ways. Her article looks at a range of features of cultural learning (reading, social learning, and imitation) and attempts to show that, at least, the jury should be out as to whether an innate module is needed for these processes. And instead, it is possible that cultural learning can itself sculpt domain general learning mechanisms to be biased towards social processes. Hence her analogy that it is both the grist (the input) and the mill (the mechanism) that are acquired. As far as I am aware this is a far from an accepted position; but she presents some interesting empirical evidence as to why the modular position should not be the default and shares an equal burden of proof with her constructivist position (for which she also presents a model that makes empirically testable predictions).

This paper is particularly interesting for considering the question of how deep enculturating processes can go towards shaping the mind. The debate is between whether culture is merely some kind of add-on or whether we are essentially cultural animals as Tomasello (1999) has proposed. Although it is interesting to note that here Heyes is arguing against Tomasello because his position entails that the mechanisms for cultural learning are a set of domain specific modules or mechanisms. As such, Heyes’ position amounts to a very radical version of the enculturated cognition position.







Heyes 2012 Grist and mills: on the cultural origins of cultural learning. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: B, 367, 2181-2191.

Tomasello 1999 The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. London: Harvard University Press.


Additional links:

Here is a video of Heyes giving a lecture on the evolution of mind-reading.


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