Cases of institutions that make us smart

Evolutionary psychologists assert that our genetically driven cognitive endowment has evolved during the Pleistocene. As a consequence, our innate cognitive mechanisms are adapted to the environment of that period (the EEA) but not necessarily to our changed modern environment. One instance of mal-adaptedness is the fact that human crave for fat and sweet food. This craving was adapted to the Pleistocene environment where high energetic food was rare, but is not to the modern environment of rich societies. There is a mismatch that causes obesity to spread, thus decreasing fitness.

The adaptedness of cognitive processes is characterised by a fit between the process and the environment. The fit means that the processes reliably lead to positive outcomes or tend to maximise results. The processes, however, do not lead to beneficial results because they perform a comprehensive analysis of the situation and an evaluation of the each possible output. In fact, such processes work, and can be considered rational, only in a specified environment. They make the most of properties (esp. statistical properties) of specific environments. They are, as Simon and Gigerenzer put it, "ecologically rational".

There is a puzzle that comes with the above assertions: if our cognitive apparatus is best adapted to the Pleistocene environment and if our modern environment depart more and more from this original environment of evolutionary adaptedness, then we should be less and less adapted, less and less ecologically rational, … dumber and dumber. But this does not really seem to be the case.

One solution to this problem is to assert that the plasticity of the mind is such that we learn and adapt to the new modern conditions. But this does not seem to do all the work: see the obesity case.

The other solution is to investigate to which extent the new culturally constructed environment evolves itself to fit the human cognitive apparatus. Simon characterised ecological rationality using the image of scissors, where one blade was made of the cognitive mechanisms and the other of properties and statistical regularities in the environment. As a consequence, there is two related means to become sharper (i.e. smarter): adapt one's cognitive mechanisms to the environment (through learning), or adapt one's environment to one's cognitive mechanisms (through actions on the environment).

If evolutionary psychologists ignore or underplay the role of this 'sharpening' of ecological rationality, then they are lead to assert that humans become dumber and dumber because of the rapid changes in the environment. Evolutionary psychologists are mainly attacked for underestimating or ignoring the plasticity of the mind: they seem to underplay the role and extent of learning. To my knowledge, they are much less accused of ignoring or underplaying the sharpening of the second blade of ecological rationality: changes in the environment often lead to increase in individual's and group's cognitive power. Gigerenzer et al. talk about (mental) heuristics that make us smart; taking ecological rationality seriously should lead us to speak also about engineered aspects of the environment (such as institutions) that make us smart.

My own work has been to draw on the history of science and mathematics to describe cases where cognitive power is increased by modification in the working environment of scientists. These modifications include changes in the material environment — making new cognitive tools available is a case in point — and it also includes modification of the cognitive environment via change in, and increase of, institutionalised scientific knowledge (knowledge distributed through institutional means and that is used as means for further scientific thinking).

One problem with such cases is that it is not very easily communicable. It seems that one does need to get into abstruse details to show how scientific cognition is actually empowered. For instance, it is hardly sufficient to say that the telescope enable scientists to see further away, or even to see in the past. In order to make one's case, one need to describe the historical cognitive practices. In particular, artefacts are made cognitively useful only if they come with a set of beliefs about their functions and how to use them (reciprocally, institutionalised knowledge come with a set of notations or formula as material means with symbolic function for scientific cognition). Changes in the material and the cognitive environment are strongly inter-connected and details of scientific practices and beliefs need to be described for pointing out the 'gains' in ecological rationality (at least in cognitive power).

So … here is eventually the reason for my post: I just came across an interesting case of institution that make us smart. It is the current discussion in France about taxing fat and sweet food. The proposition for this tax is meant as an action against obesity (see this article from Le Monde). One could discuss tax policy, the cost that obesity has on the health system and so on. But I want rather to note that a rise in the price of sweet and fat food is an institutional decision that change the environment in ways that makes sweet and fat food more difficult to obtain because more expensive … If the taxes go to subventions for green food, the relative difficulty for obtaining greens and sweet and fat food of the Pleistocene environment may be in some way reproduced. In other word, we have a proposal for an institution (the tax rules) that will reproduce some aspects of the Pleistocene environment to which we are adapted. The institutional fight against obesity goes against one key exemplar of mismatch between modern environment and human cognition as adapted to long past environment. The environment is culturally shaped so that our cognitive processes (or, here, our cravings) lead to good results.

Of course, the story is not always so happy (think about climate change: we also change the environment in ways to which we are definitively not adapted). But what this example bring about nicely, I think, is that there are whole stories about evolved cognitive abilities, ecological rationality, and the sharpening of the environmental blade.

I was wondering if some of you could come with other nice and straightforward examples.



  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 30 September 2008 (23:42)

    Thank you Christophe! At the time of publishing your post, I just learnt that eventually we won’t have a tax on junk food… This decision is praised by the Left, who remarked that such a tax would be a burden on the poor in difficult times. Alas, in our Environment of Evolutionary Adaptiveness, Arungula was not so expensive at Whole Foods!

  • Helen De Cruz
    Helen De Cruz 2 October 2008 (10:18)

    Dear Christophe, I am not sure whether people who eat fat and sugar are behaving in maladaptively. The costs of being fat are relatively small – especially compared to the costs of being underweight, as is evident in cases of anorexia, boulimia, etc. Being a bit overweight, according to recent studies, even enhances survival after serious infectuous diseases such as lung infection (I cannot find the references anymore) even compared to people with a normal BMI. Of course, there is a point where obesity (30 or higher) is maladaptive, e.g., reduced fertility in obese women. But there may be rational reasons why poorer people in Western countries are more overweight than richter people. Consider this: in Belgium, a pack of fries with mayonaise costs about 2 euros, and yields about 900 kCal. A more heathy snack, like a smoothie, contains only a fraction of these calories and costs at least double. With a tight budget and rising housing and fuel prices, what will poorer people buy? More fatty meat (like chicken legs or minced meat) are half the price of more expensive, leaner, healthier meat (like steak or fish). I therefore concur with the left in France that it would be unsocial to make these cheap foods more expensive by raising a fat tax. I suspect, by the way, that many of these studies that aim to show that being overweight is unhealthy are, what moral philosophers call, a form of disease-mongering: they take something we find unaesthetic or bothersome and raise it to the status of a disease, so that pharmaceutical companies can sell their diet pills and ointments.

  • Christophe Heintz
    Christophe Heintz 4 October 2008 (22:04)

    Thanks for your challenging comments: they give me an occasion to clarify my point. The main issue I wanted to raise was about the impact of cultural evolution, which changes the environment we live in, on ecological rationality: does it diminish it or does it augment it? If it does not diminish it, then there is an important aspect of cultural evolution that calls for explanation, and evolutionary psychology falls short of it. However, the political aspect of my post was what caught attention, so I’ll write an answer on this in the next comment. Here, I just want to justify my point about healthy diet with references from evolutionary psychology. The project of law in France caught my attention because it related to one of the evolutionary psychologists’ example of mismatch between our modern environment and the adaptive functions of our organism. Here is a quote from Kurzban’s article in Sholarpedia: ”Indeed, because natural selection only functions on what has happened in the past, every organism, including humans, are in environments which are novel in some way relative to the environment in which their adaptations were selected. […] Because genes are selected by virtue of how they contributed to reproductive success in the past, it is inevitable that there can be elements of any given organism’s environment that do not match the environmental features that played a causal role in the selection of the relevant genes. A frequently-used example is the human taste for fats and sugars. In past environments, such appetites would presumably have led to adaptive outcomes; in modern environments, because of the easy availability of foods rich in sugar and fat, people consume foods that lead to unhealthful outcomes.” Robert Kurzban (2007) Evolutionary psychology Scholarpedia, 2(8):3161. Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan dedicate a whole chapter on the topic in their book Mean Genes. The chapter is called: ”Fat: please don’t feed the humans”. The example of unhealthy diet is used as follow: First, evolutionary psychologists explain the raise of obesity in rich societies as a cultural phenomenon, which results from the interplay of evolved mechanisms and availability of rich caloric foods. It is a case of ’evoked culture’. Second, evolutionary psychologists observe that obesity (not just being a bit overweight) is not adaptive and take it as a case against the naive view (attributed to sociobiologists) that all behaviour resulting from evolved mechanisms are maximising fitness. These authors assume that diets that give much more calories to the body than what it consumes are not healthy, and medical doctors seem to concur with that belief. The article I quoted from Le Monde cited studies about health problems due to obesity. Thus, an obese person choosing to eat a chocolate cake rather than an apple is not taking a decision that will increase his/her fitness. I think one can take these assertions for granted (if only for the sake of the argument). The consequence is that, in some very specific sense of rationality as cognitive mechanisms that maximise fitness, unhealthy diets are not rational (BUT the same behaviour can be said rational in many other ways: e.g. when rationality is understood as the maximisation of utility, assuming that, e.g., the consequences on health are unknown or discounted).

  • Christophe Heintz
    Christophe Heintz 4 October 2008 (22:23)

    My remarks on politics are too long, so I’ll write another post rather than a comment. I will explain why the above post is not a eulogy (nor a criticism) of the proposal of taxing junk food.

  • guest guest 22 October 2008 (07:07)

    Obesity could be a function of not much physical labor. Rather than diet. Diet has not changed that much over the last 200 years or so in the West, while labor as a daily event certainly has.

  • guest guest 23 October 2008 (16:00)

    First thing I think reading this is: why assume that our current eating behavior is based in the Pleistocene? Let’s say we assume that our eating behaviors are driven by much older impulses that are still around because they haven’t been selected against, and that, evolutionarily, it is generally the case that species are just stuck with traits that arose from long-past selective pressure that may or may not be particualrly useful in current circumstances. In which case our expectation of ecological rationality would be pretty significantly reduced. In fact, it’d probably be a pretty bad place to start thinking about a lot of traits.

  • guest guest 26 October 2008 (23:43)

    Hello, came across this blog through a series of links. This article got some gears turning in my brain, so if you don’t mind…. There’s enough scientific research in the world to argue that obesity is maladaptive, but the trend can be linked to economic and cultural causes (e.g. fatty foods are cheaper, there’re tons of fast food restaurants, they have a lot of ads and toys, etc). Cravings for fatty foods can be viewed as a vestigial trait from when food was scarce, but maybe people are evolving in a different way we don’t understand yet. With all the talk about global warming and overpopulation, different sources are scarce now…. As silly as this may sound, maybe humans are naturally lowering their population in some areas in order to maintain species dominance over the planet. But, I know that’s not about the institutions doing us good. I think the tax example you offer is valid and makes sense in the context you present it. Hopefully it is the case that society’s institutions are making us smarter…. Otherwise we may end up like that movie Idiocracy