Biology of mind :: course description

This course is a broad, interdisciplinary introduction to the evolution
of the brain and mind. This inquiry is focused on humans, with
comparisons drawn from primates and other mammals. The pursuit of an evolutionary account of the mind depends on answering several fundamental philosophical and empirical questions.

From an empirical perspective, the course addresses the following questions:

  • How does the structure of the brain impact the function of the mind?
  • What variation in mental function occurs among present-day humans?
  • What delineates the variation between species in brain structure and function?
  • What is the nature of the systematic structure of mental functioning?
  • To what extent is the variation in mental function inherited genetically?
  • What were the minds of ancient people and fossil hominids like?

To answer these questions, different functions of the mind are reviewed in a comparative context. The mental functions that are shared between humans and other mammals broadly are differentiated from those that set humans apart, including language, consciousness, self-awareness, culture, and many others. The foundations of these advanced cognitive features are explored in the mental lives of other creatures. Several models will be presented for the evolution of such characteristics from simpler neural and psychological structures. In addition, direct evidence from the fossil and archaeological records is considered as a possible indication of the sequence of human mental evolution.

From a philosophical perspective, the course also pursues several other questions:

  • Is the mind coextensive with the brain, and does it include significant non-brain elements?
  • What part does culture play in the determination of human minds, and does culture present a significant non-evolutionary mechanism of change?
  • Are minds and mental representations commensurable between individuals?
  • How do developmental changes in the brain and mind impact individuality, and does such an impact have social and evolutionary consequences?

While the empirical questions may yield to observation and experiment, these philosophical problems ultimately can be answered only through the application of logic. Nevertheless, their answers may significantly inform our understanding of the nature of mental evolution, by delineating boundary conditions for evolutionary change of the mind while highlighting other causes of change.

Together, these two bases of inquiry present a broad perspective on the biology of the mind. The subject matter is spread across the four cross-listed fields and others, including philosophy, computer science, genetics, and paleontology. This interdisciplinary base creates a demanding learning experience, recognized by the high level of the class, challenging written assignments, guest lectures by experts in their respective fields, and both primary and secondary readings. No students in the class can be expected to be expert in all the areas covered, and for this reason the course presents some introductory material important to the interdisciplinary understanding of the issues. For some students such material will be old hat, but please understand that students in different majors may never have been exposed to the fundamental concepts of your field, and may be unable to proceed without them. Almost certainly there will be other course components that are new to you but old hat to someone else.

The interdisciplinary nature of the course also ensures that every student may get something different out of it. Although the course goes through a systematic survey of issues related to the biology of the mind, the learning experiences of different students and what they take away to their respective fields may be very different. For this reason, the written assignments in the course attempt to promote dialogues between students in different fields and to allow the fuller development of individual perspectives.