My dissertation project concerns explanation in the evolution of human cognition. Many such explanations take the form of a narrative, and so I explore the nature of narrative explanations and propose features that distinguish narrative explanations – both from other narratives, and from other explanations. This analysis further illuminates features of narrative building – including certain advantages and pitfalls associated with, e.g., constraint-based thinking, speculation, and imaginative perspective-taking. Altogether, my account shows when and why scientists use narrative explanations in evolutionary biology and in the historical sciences more generally. It also provides an evaluative framework for such narrative explanations, and allows rigorous comparison with other approaches to human cognitive evolution, such as classical Evolutionary Psychology.
Causal Selection in Context: Explaining Gene Centrism
There are two problems in the history and philosophy of genetics that seem to be related. One is the problem of causal selection in cellular and developmental processes. The other is the general approach of seeking genetic explanations, characterized by Ken Waters (2006) as ‘gene centrism.’ I argue that to understand this connection, we must consider the proximity of explanatory targets to DNA sequence. While the success of the genetic approach for proximate explanatory targets may be explained by the causal properties of DNA, its success for distal targets is better explained by the availability of the genetic framework itself.
What Would Imaginary Ancestors Do?
Michael Tomasello, in his 2014 book, A Natural History of Human Thinking, exemplifies a recently popular approach to understanding human cognitive evolution, rooted in comparative biology and phylogenetics. His aim is to provide a narrative explanation of human evolution – a causal chain of events beginning at our best understanding of the LCA between humans and great apes and ending up at modern human thinking. For certain links in the narrative where empirical evidence is unavailable, Tomasello often appeals to plausibility arguments to illustrate his speculative claims about the kinds of interactions and scenarios that would link one stage of cognitive evolution to the next. These plausibility arguments come in the form of thought experiments where readers are asked to imagine ancestral hominins responding to some scenario. But such arguments might buy more plausibility than they are worth. This example helps to show that reasoning about human cognitive evolution might be a special context where certain kinds of reasoning – like speculation – could be systematically unreliable.