tors (Tooby and DeVore, 1987; Cosmides and Tooby, 2001; Barrett et al., 2007; Pinker, 2010). Other animals, they argue, are limited to what they call “dedicated intelligence,” domain-specific learning and decision-making mechanisms that are adapted to particular environments. Humans, by contrast, have evolved “improvisational intelligence,” a suite of uniquely flexible cognitive capacities that allow our species to acquire locally adaptive behavior in a wide range of environments. In short, we are adapted to the “cognitive niche” (Tooby and DeVore, 1987; Pinker, 2010). These capacities are augmented by our species’ ability to learn from each other, especially using grammatical language.
This hypothesis flows from a nativist, modularist view of cognition. Its central premise is that broad general problems are much more difficult to solve than narrow specialized ones, and therefore the minds of all animals, including humans, are built of many special-purpose mechanisms dedicated to solving specific adaptive problems that face particular species. These mechanisms are modular in that they take inputs and generate outputs relevant to problems in particular domains such as mate choice, foraging, and the management of social relationships. These authors are nativists because they believe that evolved mechanisms depend on a considerable amount of innate information about the relationships between cues and outcomes in particular domains for particular species. For example, mechanisms that regulate decisions about mate choice in human males may be based on the assumption that long-term mating is likely, and thus selection favored a psychology that leads men to be attracted to young women. Analogous mechanisms in chimpanzees, which do not form long-term bonds, have produced a psychology that causes males to prefer older females, perhaps because they are better mothers (Muller et al., 2006). Mechanisms regulating social exchange are specialized in other ways. The innate content is built up because learning and decision mechanisms have been shaped by natural selection to solve the important recurrent adaptive problems that confronted the species.
This view of cognitive evolution seems to preclude flexible, widely applicable cognitive abilities; or, as Cosmides and Tooby put it, “on first inspection, there appear to be only two biologically possible choices for evolved minds: either general ineptitude or narrow competences” (Cosmides and Tooby, 2001). However, these authors believe that humans, and only humans, have undergone an evolutionary breakthrough that gives them “the computational ability to improvise solutions in developmental time to evolutionarily novel problems” (Barrett et al., 2007). The key ability is the use of cause-and-effect reasoning to make inferences about local environmental contingencies. As Pinker puts it,