Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking by Cecilia Heyes Book Review

Is it possible to describe a book about how the minds of human beings became so different from the minds of other animals as straightforward and depthful? Cecilia Heyes, Senior Research Fellow in Theoretical Life Sciences and Professor of Psychology at All Souls College, University of Oxford, has achieved that feat. From the very first pages of this confident and fascinating text, she makes clear not only her Cognitive Gadgets Theory but also the context in which that theory exists. And the writing is lucid and engaging:

“No other animals have so completely transformed their environment, become so dependent on cooperation for survival, and constructed, along the way, the vast edifices of knowledge and skill in which all human lives are embedded: technology, agriculture, science, religion, law, politics, trade, history, art, literature, music, and sports. Why? What is it about the human mind that enables us to live such unusual lives, and why do our minds work that way?”

For Heyes, the answer is cognitive gadgets and the tone is practical rather than abstract: the implications of her theory suggest different ways in which we might think more profitably about learning. What are these gadgets?

“Mechanisms of thought, embodied in our nervous systems, that enable our minds to go further, faster, and in different directions than the minds of any other animals.” The author then provides us a roster of gadgets: “causal understanding, episodic memory, imitation, mind reading, normative thinking, and many more.” These gadgets — in her theory — arise from social interaction that changes the way we think. In other words, they are a product of learning but as she details them they are also the pathways to some of our most fundamental learning. For the author, “distinctively human cognitive mechanisms, like gadgets, come from human rather than genetic action, and they are small tools that make a big difference. Most human behaviour is controlled by mechanisms we have in common with other animals, but cognitive gadgets are what make our lives so different from theirs.”

The cultural aspect of Heyes’ relatively short book (304 pages) for such a complex topic is important because the theory that the author espouses holds that “distinctly human cognitive mechanisms — ways of thinking — have been built by cultural evolution.“ She insists that they “are cognitive gadgets rather than cognitive instincts; pieces of mental technology that are not merely tuned but assembled in the course of childhood through social interaction.” Cultural evolution argues that individuals acquire their mental representations by observing the behavior of others. The theory “suggests that humans do not genetically inherit mechanisms that are specialized for the representation of mental states”, but rather culture interacts with ‘genetic starter kits’ to create such capabilities. What difference does this theory make? The difference between seeing ourselves as fixed entities mostly hardwired by genes and viewing ourselves as a collection of malleable elements that depend upon and are molded and remolded through social life. Models of development shift depending upon which of these theories informs a worldview and more critically the design, application, and evaluation of interventions as well the expectations of institutions.

Heyes’ theory and the school of cultural evolution inspire great argument given the recent dominance of genetic explanations for the shaping of our central attributes. Heyes’ book offered a new and persuasive twist on that old debate for me. (Anyone who has recently seen the riveting and disturbing documentary Three Identical Strangers will be familiar again with the nature versus nurture argument.) While she outlines here difference with other schools, Heyes refuses to adopt an either-or stance and instead looks intriguingly at the ways in which genetic and cultural inheritances intertwine. As she writes, “It is far from easy to parse cognitive development” because “every aspect of human behavior and cognition depends upon a rich stew of factors.” She is simultaneously judicious and probing in her consideration of how much our abilities are fed by the culture part of the ‘stew’.

Heyes does contrast significantly with such influential researchers and theorists as Robert Plomin and Noam Chomsky. The former who has in the past advised the Minister of Education in the United Kingdom argues that the ability to learn is influenced more by genes than experience. Chomsky has advanced for decades the model of language as an innate faculty, a consequence of how we are born with a set of rules about language already imprinted in our brains — a ‘Universal Grammar’. Heyes asserts instead that what we inherit genetically needs to be put together, switched on, and amplified in some manner to reach its full potential but her stance advocates where possible syntheses of theories rather than antitheses. For example, she writes:

“The Cognitive Gadget, ASL model of imitation in no way suggests that imitation depends exclusively on associative learning. Rather, it suggests that certain kinds of socio-cultural experience — for example, synchronous action, being imitated, and interacting with mirrors — are of overriding importance in the development of imitation.”

The difference between cultural and genetic selection provides a vivid example of the implications of choosing or at least involving cultural evolution instead of relying only upon genetic theories of development. In the former view, the social mechanisms described “are inherited through social learning, but also because social group membership influences which cognitive mechanism and individual is likely to develop.” This recognition that the inheritance of cognitive mechanisms can take place “by group level or social processes — things that go on between people, rather than inside individuals’ heads — such as conversation, storytelling, turn-taking, collective reminiscing, teaching, demonstrating, and engaging in synchronous drills” shifts how we should look at not just teaching and learning but larger social phenomena. Collaborative learning becomes more important; social contexts grow in their significance. In dealing with the opportunity gaps that exist among different layers of American society, current interventions may prove inconsistent with this newer contemplation of the inheritance and transmission of cognitive mechanisms.

In a section with great relevance to teaching skills, Heyes explicates ‘mind reading’ also known as ‘theory of mind’: “Mind reading is a culturally inherited skill that facilitates the cultural inheritance of other, more specific skills; mind reading is a cultural gift that keep on giving.” Again drawing contrast with Noam Chomsky and nativist theories, she “suggests that humans do not genetically inherit neurocognitive mechanisms that are specialized for the development of explicit mind reading. Nonetheless, we naturally assume that genetically evolved mechanisms provide much of the raw material for the construction of explicit mind reading: the mechanisms that become specialized for representation of mental states and the processes that make cultural inheritance possible. Our perspective implies that a priority for future research is to identify the genetic ‘start-up kit’ for the cultural inheritance of mind reading.”

Why such attention to this cultural gadget? She believes that “mind reading allows teachers to represent the extent and limits of a pupil’s current knowledge and, thereby, to infer at each stage in the learning process what that particular pupil must be shown or told to overcome ignorance, correct false beliefs, and build his or her body of knowledge. … (F)rom a cognitive science perspective, mindreading is the best candidate for a ‘special ingredient’ of teaching.”

More generally, Heyes’ reading of research indicating print reading and literacy training are disanalogous to other distinctively human cognitive mechanisms “implies that, in the future, the cultural inheritance of other cognitive mechanisms could be enhanced by formal education. It may be possible to design training programs — for use by caregivers, in schools, or in the criminal justice system — to improve cognitive skills such as selectively social learning, imitation, and mind reading in a whole society or particular group.” (An upcoming comprehensive meta-analysis of the malleability of non-cognitive skills by my ETS colleagues Martin-Raugh , Williams, and Lentini that I have had the pleasure to read complements this notion that traits that we perhaps erroneously believed were influenced completely by genetics might alter significantly and valuably through better designed interventions that take into account the realities that Heyes presents.)

Heyes employs a sly and witty style: back in the notes section, she points out that as a collectivist account, the cognitive gadget view has much in common with social constructivist accounts of mind reading. “However, unlike many social constructivists, and like ‘theory-theory’, the cognitive gadget view assumes that the processes involved in the development of mindreading are broadly rational and yield conceptual knowledge about the mind.”


My enthusiasm for the book does not suggest that it is an easy read. There are sentences to stop you in your tracks and make you retreat at least 20 paces; “supporters of the mind reading-first position suggest that, whether or not complex mind reading is required for Gricean communication, the evidence of implicit mentalizing in infants shows that humans are able to read minds long before they can have a conversation.” (Deep breath.) Some readers may find the book too technical as it moves through descriptions of gaze-cuing and rhesus monkey vocalisations, but the author merely is peeling back the layers of our understanding of the world or even more specifically of our learning.

I was very game for the book that Tyler Cowen first brought to my attention. Rich with inventive metaphor and accessible allusions, Heyes gives us Lewis Carroll, Gestalt switches, and lactose intolerance to help us understand different theories of cultural evolution. In making her points, she also displays a wicked sense of humor. For example, to point out the remarkable social tolerance of humans as opposed to chimpanzees she employs Susan Hrdy’s research that people crammed together on an airplane disguise their irritation and get along whereas chimpanzees would attack each other so that “Bloody ear lobes and other appendages would litter the aisles.”

Double ouch!

Much of what Heyes and her allies state still requires confirmatory and even extrapolatory research. Underlying principles to the theory need more of a foundation such as the tenet that “we like making things happen, whether the things are social or asocial. However, in everyday life, it is often social things that we are able to control, and therefore the reactions of other agents are a major source of response-contingent stimulation.” There is much to reconsider in this telling of human development. For example, halfway through the book and about to enter the passages devoted to four specific aspects of cultural evolutionary learning (selective social learning, imitation, mind-reading, and language), I found myself wanting to know how these mechanisms can produce disastrous beliefs such as anti-vaccination or conspiracy theories.

The relevance to those of us interested in helping people to learn in organizations is clear. It is plausible that we have overemphasized individual over social and cultural learning despite knowing the latter’s importance. It is also possible that we fail to appreciate the enduring power of cognitive gadgets such as copy the prestigious or successful that suggest that principles enunciated by many change management theorists such as Edwin Nevis of the need to employ high-level players within the organization in order to get attention and compliance are simply an outgrowth of this function. If we apply the book’s insights to our own organizations, particularly Heyes’ points about cultural learning’s role in “enab(ling) each person and social group to benefit from the accumulated experience of innumerable other people, past and present, and thereby collectively to acquire knowledge and develop skills that far surpass those of other species”, do we find our current plans and methods wanting?

Of course, the importance of responses to this work will be in how they tackle findings and beliefs such as that ”distinctively human cognitive mechanisms are tracking targets that moved too fast for genetic evolution.’ Contentions such as the ‘major cognitive upgrade’ required by behavioral modernity’s emergence involved to change more in “how people thought, rather than what they thought, and that (those) changes were primarily by cultural rather than genetic evolution” should induce (and deserve) strong responses from both other precincts of cultural evolution theory and those who favor genetic explanations for these skills’ development. Inferences such as “Social media, robotics and virtual reality are not threats but stimuli for further cultural evolution of the human mind, and well-targeted interventions have the potential to transform cognitive development” are broad and bold statements that should stoke the debate. As Heyes notes she does not believe that “the case for the cognitive gadgets theory is ‘already conclusive’.” But if other thinkers are willing to engage with the theory that she has described, we will all move closer to understanding the future direction and current needs of human nature, “the set of mechanisms that underlie the manifestation of our species’ typical cognitive and behavioral regularities, which humans tend to possess as a result of the evolution of their species.”