Cosmides on the Dangers of "Anyone Can Be Shaped Into Anything"

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I ran across a quotation from Leda Cosmides about the idea that a person can be shaped into anything, that all minds have the same potential. This idea, still dominant in social sciences and even HR, is a reaction against the racist psychologies so fully realized by the National Socialists in Germany. (But let’s be frank: they are popular everywhere, and my own countrymen created some of the important works.)

Radical behaviorism — so well debunked by then grad student Martin Seligman — took the message even farther so that one of them could cry that given any child, he could make any type of work desired by simply changing the environment, regardless of the child’s natural inclinations. Odd, of course, that so many twins separated by birth have such similar jobs. Given a choice, we will gravitate to work that fits our natural selves.

I have no problem with the postmodernist goal of understanding how ideologies and power relations affect discourse in a society – indeed, I think evolutionary psychology has a lot to contribute to this. Nor do I have a problem with the idea that certain concepts are “socially constructed”. By understanding our evolved cognitive programs, we can understand how this is possible, which information is filled in by others, and which information is generated by evolved inferences that go beyond the information given by the cultural environment.

But I do have a problem with the notion that everything in our heads originated totally on the “outside” – the information in the environment is just too underdetermined for this proposal to work. I also have a problem with the claim that everything is learned via the same program (always unspecified!), and that every idea is as easy to learn as the next. This notion of an “equipotential” mind is known to be wrong. And talk about noxious political implications – the idea of equipotentiality supported some of the biggest blood baths of the 20th century: How many millions have died because a Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot thought it would be easy to mold human nature to their will?

[from an interview done for El Mercurio; paragraph break added for my blog’s convenience]

[If you read this and are wont to accuse Cosmides of racist beliefs, you should note that she co-authored the paper showing that race doesn’t have to exist (“Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization” [PDF]).]

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