a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


Recognising the importance of Watson and Crick


Debating the case for a 'modular' brain with Richard Dawkins
John Maynard Smith Scientist
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments

It's popular among the people studying evolutionary psychology, at the moment, to suggest that the brain may be more modular than we thought, it may contain modules for language, modules for sexual relations, modules for making tools and so on. My feeling is that the evidence is much stronger in the case of language than it is in the case of other conditions, essentially because there are people who, as a result either of genetic or physical damage, have no serious impairment to their general intelligence but find speaking very difficult, or the other way round, who apparently talk perfectly well but can't think, and the two things do seem to be separable. The evidence for other modules seems to be a lot weaker, that's not to say I don't think they exist, I'm just saying that I'm not... I don't think, as yet, the evidence is as strong as in the case of language. But one rather fascinating suggestion, it's due to Stephen Mythen, is that what happened with the origin of language was that a series of independent modules in the human mind had been evolving, one for coping with social relationships, one for coping with manufacturing tools and using them, one for coping with natural history and maps and finding your way around and remembering where you saw something yesterday, and so on. That these evolved as rather separate modules in the mind, but what happened with the origin of Homo sapiens is that they started talking to one another in the mind, and communication between modules was what was crucial. And which may also have underlain the origin of language. Now, it's not quite clear to me how that would work out. But the world is full of ideas about it at the moment.

[Q] A devil's advocate might point to reading and writing as being obviously an adaptation, it's immensely complicated. Quite clearly, the brain has been naturally selected to read and write. What sort of an answer would you give to that?

Well, I think one would reply, the contrast between teaching a child to read and write and the contrast of teaching it to talk. You don't have to teach it to talk, the problem is to shut the little beast up. It just talks. And although parents do occasionally correct grammatical errors, it's quite unnecessary. The child will learn to speak the grammar of the language in which it is raised without any teaching at all. But you can leave books lying around and if you don't teach the kid, it will never learn, and it's a slow and painful process, learning to read. And I think that's the... the difference.

[Q] I suppose you could also say that the sort of painful way in which we can... in which children do learn to read and write is perhaps rather like language itself was originally, and whatever the pre-adaptation was, perhaps some particularly gifted individuals managed to teach themselves to use it, to speak, in rather the same way as we teach children to read and write.

Yes, I like that general approach, that you know we sort of learned to do things and then they gradually got genetically assimilated. I'm sure there were, sort of, I think there's a lot of room for individual initiative in the evolution of language, in the sense of individuals coming up with new grammatical, or new words and so on, initially being copied culturally, not genetically. But gradually, if they were grammatical inventions being incorporated at a more genetic level.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: Stephen Mythen

Duration: 3 minutes, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 29 May 2013