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Categorizing Phenotypic Plasticity: An Analysis of Its Role in Human Cognitive Evolution

Abstract

I identify six types of phenotypic plasticity and categorize them with respect to their cognitive status. I look at differences and relations between some of these types (neural, cognitive and cultural) of plasticity and then analyze how phenotypic outcomes are transmitted (via genetic and non-genetic inheritance) across generations. I engage with the relevant literature on developmental scaffolding and entrenchment in cultural evolution. I argue that that the typology I present here can be beneficial for such a debate and therefore instructive to better comprehend the evolution and development of human cognition.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. A further note for the reader, sometimes I appeal to different sort of definitions for these different types of plasticity; namely, either I rely on ontological definitions [‘what it is’] or focus instead on epistemological definitions [‘what it makes’]. There are two reasons for this: (i) it is extremely difficult to provide universally accepted definitions for these phenomena, hence I need to resurrect to available tools and (ii) some of these labels are used more often than others, hence (again) for some of these types of plasticity is easier to appeal to ontology rather than to epistemology to define them. Thanks to one of the reviewers for pressing this point.

  2. Sensory substitution devices are devices that compensate for the loss of a sensory modality (for example vision) by offering their users new sensory information coming from alternative sensory modalities (for example, audition or touch).

  3. Cognitive skills can be generally defined as the complex set of abilities that an organism can acquire, improve and/or refine through practice, observational learning, inferences, predictions etc.

  4. I note that Mercado (2008) is dividing perceptual-motor skills from cognitive skills. This quote thus seems to point to a firm distinction between visual abilities and cognitive abilities.

  5. I note that ‘cultural plasticity’ in the larger sense can also refer to non-adaptive cultural changes. My definition, however, refers to adaptive cultural changes. For brevity I use the expression ‘cultural plasticity’ throughout this manuscript.

  6. The concept of culture is notoriously very problematic and extremely difficult to pin down. In this paper I define it rather pragmatically in terms of information (such as knowledge, beliefs, values, and skills) that is capable of affecting individuals’ behaviours via teaching, imitation and other forms of social learning. For an extended analysis of this concept see Laland et al. (2010). In addition, in this paper, I understand culture as fluid, changing, and quintessentially dynamic.

  7. Some philosophers (Fodor and Pylyshyn 1981) see vision/perception and cognition as separate categories. I disagree with this interpretation. Visual/perceptual abilities and cognitive abilities, I argue, usually overlap. The reasons I defend this claim are grounded in research conducted on embodied cognition (Hatfield 2009; Prinz 2002), which shows the reciprocal ways in which our perception of the world influences our decisions, beliefs and actions and it is, in turn, re-influenced by our knowledge of the world we perceive. Furthermore, research conducted on concept acquisition has shown that processes of inference and categorisation, which are normally associated with cognitive abilities, have their roots in perceptual systems and that perceptual and cognitive processes often possess similar underlying mechanisms (Pecher et al. 2004). This is good empirical evidence to support my claim.

  8. It is worth noting that the cultural ability in question (the capacity to read placards underwater) is one that also requires a degree of cognitive plasticity, which is dependent upon successful skill acquisition and is achieved via deeply embodied practices (repeated everyday activities). These embodied practices (involving scuba diving, spear fishing, and snorkelling) are bodily centred and cultural in character, being the results of complex biological-pedagogical actions (e.g., teaching individuals how to perform these tasks when diving without scuba gear) that—transmitted inter- and cross-generationally (thus also historically) among members of the community—have led to the successful development of the ability in question (superior underwater vision).

  9. Despite a very general consensus on the reach and significance of the phenomenon, the very concept of evolvability remains rather elusive, possessing a variety of different meanings and implications (Sniegowski and Murphy 2006). These different meanings and implications have led to the formulation of controversial definitions (which I do not report here), which have generated some conceptual diversity, or pluralism, about what exactly evolvability is (Brown 2014). This, in truth, is not the place to analyse and reflect on such complex meanings and implications or to explore this pluralism and the rich varieties of definitions underlying it any further, see however Love (2003) and Sterelny (2006) for interesting accounts.

  10. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/31/science/dutch-famine-genes.html Last accessed September 2021.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to express my appreciation to Innopolis University for generously funding my research. A special and rather large thanks must go to Andrea Lavazza, Nicholas Shea, Karola Stotz, John Sutton, David Papineau, David Kaplan, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Michael Anderson, and Brian Keeley for their sharp comments and invaluable support through the preparation of this paper. Thanks also to Julian Kiverstein, Glenn Carruthers for their stimulating feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript. Needless to say, any remaining errors are mine alone.

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Farina, M. Categorizing Phenotypic Plasticity: An Analysis of Its Role in Human Cognitive Evolution. J Gen Philos Sci 53, 103–121 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-021-09586-y

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Keywords

  • Phenotypic plasticity
  • Typology
  • Learning
  • Cognition
  • Cultural evolution