Words Are Thinking Tools
Words are thinking tools (e.g., Dennett). New word tools can sometimes avoid old confusions. Let’s use “praxotype,” “cognotype,” and “technomorphic” to see human nature better.
1) Biologists describe organisms in terms of genotypes (gene sets) and phenotypes (developed traits — genes aren’t all used). But those types don’t distinguish physiological from behavioral or cognitive traits. Usually all three trait types are subsets of genotypes. But not for us.
2) Much human behavior, including what you’re doing right now, isn’t in your genes. Our physical traits are subsets of our genotype, but our praxotypes (sets of behaviors, prax = action) and cognotypes (cognitive traits) aren’t. That’s one reason why “gene for X” is less useful in humans, if X is a behavioral or cognitive trait.
3) We don’t only inherit genes. We inherit modified environments, physical tools, thinking-tools, second-nature skills, social rules, etc. And such “cultural” elements have long shaped our genes.
4) Emily Dickinson declared, “The Brain — is wider than the Sky.” Similarly, our praxotypes are wider than our biology. And our sky-containing skulls contain opinions that exert forces on our physiology.
5) Praxotypes = Lamarckian. Improved habits can be “inherited,” by social transmission. Other species learn socially, but we do it way more. Evident praxotype diversity suggests we shouldn’t model motivations monolithically (single-minded “utility” seeking risks becoming circular, and unfalsifiable).
6) It’s worth recalling how psychology was seen before today’s seeming certainties arose. Hamlet’s “There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” stretches a key truth. Shakespeare likely knew Montaigne’s essay, which quotes Cicero’s “grief lies not in nature, but [in] opinion,” and says opinions, “error and dreams,” each “gains reality” by serving as cause for our actions. Darwin similarly noted how “Hindoo” beliefs about food, not the food itself, had “soul-shaking” effects.
7) Montaigne’s we’re all “furnished … with similar tools and instruments for thought,” is right about our hardware. But our cognotypes are computer-like. They include updatable software.
8) Pinker arguing against “The Blank Slate” mental model said we have a common “battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning,” that can work like “setting a dial [or] flipping a switch.” But those “technomorphic” elements should also include computer-like logic scripts (if X, then do Y etc., which can be System 1 triggered, and can encode our cultures’ habits, and emotion-configuring stories, and maxims). Parts of our minds are blank slates awaiting social scripts.
Our software-configurable cognotypes (opinions, and beliefs, often unchosen and tacit) drive our praxotypes (especially our habits) and influence how our physiology reacts. Though we evolved like other species, much about us is unique or uniquely developed. We’re the least genetically constrained species ever.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.