Don's Diary

June 26, 1998


Start gentle. Coffee with a colleague who is on sabbatical, discussing a nagging question: can there really be an evolutionary psychology? These days, many of us psychologists are keen to sign up to a Darwinian approach to studying the mind, but what does this mean in practice? We look for ways in which behaviours, emotions, or cognitive styles might have been adaptive or maladaptive for our ancestors. Easy to justify when you consider an emotion like anxiety (no anxiety might have meant no fear of danger but increasing the risk that you do not survive to spread your DNA).

A bit harder to justify in relation to depression (is it a mechanism for making you stop what you are doing when it is leading nowhere, elicit sympathetic support, and rethink your plans, including reproductive plans?). The arguments feel more speculative. Darwinising psychology still has a long way to go if it is to have principled ways of deriving and assessing these adaptionist accounts. Otherwise we are left with some accounts that "feel straightforward", and some that "feel more strained". I voice my concern that my own edited book, The Maladapted Mind, will be treated as if it is an endpoint, whereas at best it is a starting point for research into evolutionary psychopathology. But Darwinising in this way forces me to rethink whether "psychiatric diseases'' are necessarily always pathological. Might they have once been adaptive, but only in our modern environment seem maladaptive?


Lecture to the medical students. The topic is phobias. I tell the students that a person with a spider phobia might not be able to sit in the lecture theatre and concentrate because they might be constantly distracted by the automatic thought that somewhere near their feet in the dark space under the benches there might be a spider. This has a dramatic effect: lots of students raise their knees almost to chin level, to keep their feet off the floor, and I realise that maybe spider phobics are not just the topic of the lecture - some of them may even be attending the lecture! I think back to my discussion yesterday about adaptation. Might it pay for some individuals to be in a constant state of hypervigilance, so that they operate like an early-warning system not only for themselves but also for their kin? Yes, it might make some sense that natural selection operated like that. But how do you prove it?


A long session with my research assistant reviewing projects and planning new ones. Our neuro-imaging study of autism is almost complete, and we are feeling excited by preliminary results. The new technology is making it possible for us to move to a new level of studying the mind, an in vivo description of cognition at work in the brain. A memo interrupts our conversation: one of the oldest Medical Research Council units in the country, the applied psychology unit, has today changed its name to the Brain and Cognitive Sciences unit. We both smile and remark that the field of psychology is being renamed cognitive neuroscience with most people not even noticing.


An invited talk in the department of archaeology at Reading University. It turns out that Reading has set up the first MA in cognitive archaeology. My curiosity is piqued: how do these students differ from straight cognitivists, or straight archaeologists? I give my lecture describing my research on autism, but the audience's questions are all about implications for the evolution of the hominid brain. Did language precede mind-reading, or vice-versa? I speculate that language would have been rather limited without a mind-reading ability, since it could not have been used for genuine social communication. This suggests that mind reading came first. I give the example of the human infant, who shows a sensitivity to mind-reading even before language has developed. Then I suggest language might have "boot-strapped'' mind-reading simply because language can function as a kind of print-out of another person's thoughts, so you get instant access into what they might be thinking about. But I admit it is all speculation. I naively hoped this new generation of cognitive archaeologists were going to provide some confirming or disconfirming evidence to take the argument a bit further. But they admit how totally at sea they are.


Off to London, to a project meeting to assess our research into early diagnosis of autism. I am glad this project is primarily practical and applied, testing a new method for detecting autism in infancy. The test is based on human universals in infancy, such as gaze-following, the pointing gesture, and pretend play. Such universals are, of course, highly consistent with Darwinian thinking. On this project, hospital doctors come together to consider the clinical implications of not showing these behaviours - does their absence in a particular infant sound warning bells that may be an undiagnosed case of autism? Results look promising, but there is much work to do before we can draw our conclusions.

Simon Baron-Cohen. Lecturer in psychopathology, departments of experimental psychology and psychiatry, University of Cambridge.

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