Cognition *in eco*, cognition *in vitro*

The cognitive sciences are an interdisciplinary research project, built in the context of Macy’s conferences which established the computationalist paradigm comparing the functioning of the human mind with that of a computer. Sixty-seven years later, this project seems to have exploded between many competing approaches [^nunez_what_happened], presumably under the abundant evidence of fundamental discrepancies between human cognition and artificial computation. It appears indeed that cognitive agency emerges from complex interactive dynamics between an agent and their environment [^braitenberg_vehicles][^brooks_robotics][^clark_extended_mind][^damasio_descartes_error][^varela_embodied_mind] rather than innate algorithmy, a feature that remains essentially absent in experimental or theoretical cognitive psychology. Despite this failure to establish an integrated science of human cognition, cognitive psychology remains for some authors a necessary basis for any research in the social sciences and humanities [^sperber_explaining_culture]. According to this “cognitive neo-naturalist” thesis, integrating our understanding of human societies into a broader vision of natural phenomenon implies accounting with a high level of detail for the functioning of their cognitive mechanisms. I will discuss here the adequacy of this position, as compared to competing paradigms on the study of humans as natural entities, in the light of the physical laws of emergence which ground our understanding of the relation between individual and collective behaviour.

Cognitive psychology is in fact mainly built around experiments on isolated individuals in a laboratory context, which seek to shed light on the properties of particular sub-systems that participate in their cognition: decision-making mechanisms, immediate visual perception, attention, … Rare are the approaches that explicitly seek to study behaviours outside the laboratory or the interaction of several individuals, most likely due to the methodological constraint of experimental reproducibility. As a result, cognitive approaches to social phenomena tend to highlight the way in which specific cognitive “modules” bias individual behaviours [^barrett_cognition_modularity], and often take for granted that these biases are sufficient to explain collective behaviours. For exemple, Baumard & Boyer (2013) [^baumard_moral_religions] explains the emergence of moralising religions (i.e. those that articulate an explicit doctrine concerning behaviours favoured or disapproved by one form or another of cosmic justice) from 1000 BC onwards by prior economic growth, which would cause people to cooperate more and to rationalise a posteriori their intuitive behaviour in religious doctrine. This analysis, while not necessarily false in and of itself, gives no clear reason why it excludes the widely documented role of religious ritual and belief in organising societies [^kapitany_ritual_morphospace] (notably with regard to economic activity [^weber_ethique_protestante] and the emergence of complex institutions [^norenzayan_prosocial_religions]) beyond the authors’ preference for individualist explanations.

Humans constantly interact with each other in ways that structure their individual behaviours, and the structure that connects them is therefore crucial to understanding the emergence of collective behaviours. Simple contagious behaviors can be tested through Nicky Case’s game The Wisdom and/or Madness of Crowds. For exemple, the emergence of large scale cooperation is critically dependant not only on individual properties such as belief or wealth, but also on the so-called “small-world property” (ie weak connectivity between integrated communities) [^allen_evolutionary_structure][^lozano_mesoscopic_structure]. Even cognitive dynamics, such as the development of adaptive models of the world in individual humans, critically depends on the topological properties of social interactions [^derex_partial_connectivity][^muthukrishna_collective_brain]. The evolution of adaptive belief and practices in human societies is indeed dependant on so-carred “scale invariance” [^migliano_multilevel_sociality], or the lack of a dominant scale in a system’s dynamics and organisation, which happens to be endemic in social systems [^khaluf_scale_invariance]. Scale invariance is critical to adaptive behaviour as it underlies information integration between dynamical scales [^shew_functional_criticality], and is synomynous with emerging underdetermination manifesting as extreme sensibility to localised events, and wild fluctuations in spontaneous behaviour. In other words, events that should be exceptional in view of the average in vitro behaviour of individuals are systematically produced in the context of in eco behaviour due to the mesoscopic structure of actual social systems (what exist between the individual and aggregated scale, for exemple families, neighbourhoods, cities, and regions when considering a country).

Importantly, this mesoscopic structure is not a neutral, invariant fact of human life but reflects the ecological constraints and evolutionary history that generated it in the first place. Indeed, behavioural traits are heritable through social as well as genetic transmission [^laland_extended_synthesis], and are therefore subject to an adaptive process emerging from the development and selection of cultural variants [^richerson_not_genes_alone][^henrich_secret_success]. In particular, cultural traits may result from selection acting on the level of groups, due to preferential diffusion (either through growth, influence, or migration) of traits associated to better collective coordination [^wilson_multilevel_selection][^richerson_cultural_group_selection]. Consequently, collective traits (such as social norms, language, or social structure) are subject to the same evolutionary dynamics as individual traits, and undergo the same drive toward functional organisation. Moreover, as individual cognition evolves in answer to the cultural niche humans find themselves in [^boyd_cultural_niche], it appears hardly sensible to argue against the existence of a dynamical relation between cognition and culture (or between individual and collective traits). Therefore, any cognitive trait that we are able to measure in vitro is not only the result of genetic adaptation at the scale of human individuals, but also the result of cultural adaptation at the scale of mesoscopic structure. Due to their focus on supra-individual developmental history and functionality, any approach traducing such dynamical integration between cognitive traits and social structure may be called “cognitive holism”.

Incidentally, this perspective clashes directly with cognitive neo-naturalism’s accent on individual behaviour, but reflects rather closely the funding social scientific framework of methodological holism. Indeed, while this demarch is not hegemonic, social scientists generally accept that social phenomenons are not always reducible to the explanatory level of individual behaviour. “Epistemic architecture” [^ogien_sciences_cognitives], as a system of belief that is instituated within a given social context, is for exemple widely recognised as an acceptable explanatory level even without explicit reference to individual cognitive processes. Institutions and social norms are collective patterns in social behaviour, which exerted formidable causal power over the course of human history [^diamond_guns_germs_steel][^acemoglu_geography_institutions], and are mainly subject to endogenous determination [^acemoglu_political_transitions][^richerson_cultural_group_selection] rather than individual cognition. In addition to their ability to study emerging belief and practices at a given point in time, social sciences also include mature methodological tools to integrate to their analysis the developmental history that instituated those social facts. Such an integration between mecanism, function, and history, although it is by no mean mirrored in cognitive neo-naturalism, constitutes one of the most fundamental features of evolutionary study [^bateson_tinbergens_four]. It is therefore far from obvious that explanations relative to individual cognition should have a special status within the social sciences, regarding either their expected explanatory power or their alignment with the natural sciences.

The concept of naturalism, although it come with somewhat conflicting definitions, can be associated within the context of scientific research as a methodological paradigm aiming to discover the structure of causal relations that exist in nature. Although there are no definitive consensus regarding how or why science works [^chalmers_science], naturalists generally agree that the scientific validity of representations should be judged on their ability to generate valid, non-trivial predictions on (actual or natural) experiments. It follows that scientific domains should be mutually consistent in their predictive content, but not that researchers within a domain should necessarily prefer methods or objects associated to lower levels of analysis [^andler_naturalism]. Naturalism therefore provides a weak ground to exclude a priori non-individual explanations to social phenomenons, and would rather support holism due to its central role in our current understanding of long run determinism in human societies. Due to this, and since scale invariance in both social structure and brain tissues provides a fundamental argument against the possibility of abstracting any level of analysis in human behaviour, the evidence that cognitive psychology may or should constitute the grounding of naturalist social sciences is at the moment extremely scarce. The simplest, most parcimonious way to adress the intrication of cognition and culture is most likely to recognise that, just like biological systems, social systems display complex emerging dynamics that gives them some limited level of autonomy with regard to their constitutive components.

Avel GUÉNIN–CARLUT & the Kairos collective

From Guénin–Carlut, Avel. 2020. ‘Cognition in Eco, Cognition in Vitro’. https://osf.io/ercz6/ (October 31, 2020).

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This article was updated on June 7, 2021