A Call for New Perspectives on Cognitive Evolution

A recent study at SapienCE calls for a more nuanced approach to understanding the evolution of human cognition, arguing that research on the mental abilities of humans – in the present and the past – needs to incorporate cultural and cognitive diversity more explicitly.

Group of people gathres looking like ancient people
HUMAN COGNITIVE EVOLUTION: A new study, led by SapienCE scientists Andrea Bender and Larissa Mendoza Straffon, argues that data from cross-cultural linguistics and comparative cognitive studies, should be systematically incorporated in research on human cognitive evolution.
Craig Foster

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A new study, led by SapienCE scientists Andrea Bender and Larissa Mendoza Straffon, – in collaboration with cognitive anthropologist John B. Gatewood from Lehigh, and elaborating on ideas of past SapienCE member Sieghard Beller – argues that data from comparative cognitive studies across cultures and languages, among others, should be systematically incorporated in research on human cognitive evolution. Models that simply reverse-engineer cognitive abilities from the present into the evolutionary past require revision.

Diverse Perspectives and Influences

In the study published in Psychological Review, the researchers discuss how cultural variation produces diverse ways of seeing and thinking about the world, and how this subsequently influences everything from how we perceive and sort colours or represent spatial relations to the emotions we feel, as demonstrated by cross-cultural and cross-linguistic data. Larissa Straffon explains:

“To illustrate this, let us, hypothetically, say that a study found that some contemporary population showed a preference for the colour green. The current trend would be to publish those results as saying that humans evolved to prefer the colour green. We argue that this would be invalid because, first, the sample would be too small to grant any such conclusion. Second, if we looked at cross-linguistic data, we would find that some languages, for example Japanese, do not clearly distinguish between green and blue. It would therefore be important to include speakers of such languages in any study on colour preferences. Third, comparative cognitive studies might, again hypothetically, show that we share our visual preferences with great apes, in which case a ‘preference for green’ would be an inherited trait and not at all evolved in humans.”

Straffon suggests that the more interesting question would be: How do human culture and cognition interact to influence colour perception and visual preferences across populations?  For example, which words for colours our language comprises may affect how much attention we pay to variations of the colours green and blue. Incidentally, this is a topic that SapienCE SAC member Professor Asifa Majid – 2024 Jeff Elman Prize winner – specializes on.

According to Straffon, cultural practices such as pedagogy, storytelling, and craftmaking allow us to preserve and transfer collective knowledge. This, in turn, builds up from the cumulative experiences of individuals and groups across generations, which act as the basis – or a scaffold – for cultural innovation and variation. And as knowledge transfer takes place within interconnected networks, it tends to diversify into distinct group-specific styles:

“Think for example of regional art styles, costumes, and dialects. By simply sharing intentions, learning, and speaking to each other within our local groups, we generate cultural variants that are particular to our temporal and spatial contexts. In this study, we argue that it is for that reason that cognitive evolutionary research should pay more attention to those specific contexts”.

Cultural Variants in Perception and Cognition

To understand how culture generates variations in human perception and cognition, Bender and colleagues suggest applying a comparative method using cross-cultural extrapolation and phylogenetic analysis. The former strategy looks across human groups and species to ‘filter out’ diversity. The latter, ‘capitalizes’ on diversity by comparing variation among populations. Cognitive diversity lies at the intersection of shared human ancestry and local cultural development. By focusing on that intersection, the comparative approach can help us understand why despite our cohesion as a species, our experiences of the world differ.

“Culture influences a great deal, if not all, of what we experience, think, or do, from the emotions we feel and express to how we think of and about everyday objects. A famous example involves how we habitually describe spatial relations. When setting objects in relation to other objects, we need to decide on which perspective to take. For instance, our own view, the view of the person with whom we talk, the direction of the object, or even an overall ‘bird’s eye’ view. Preferences for which perspective one can, or is used to, adopt differ across cultures and languages, and this has shown to affect people’s wayfinding skills, their co-speech gestures, how they memorize relations and orders, and even how they think about time”, Bender explains.

Thus, the effects of culture on how we perceive the world, the authors argue, can run deeply.

Rethinking the Evolution of Religion

In one case study, the authors applied the comparative approach to the origin of religious beliefs. This yielded some unexpected results. In previous research on the evolution of religion, it has generally been accepted that complex Theory-of-Mind– that is, the ability to attribute mental states such as thoughts, beliefs, desires, and intentions to others – would have been necessary for religious beliefs to arise. However, drawing from large-scale cross-cultural data and phylogenetic studies of religions, Bender and her team revealed that this was likely not the case:

“Our findings suggest that fundamental abilities like attributing agency to things that move are sufficient for forming basic animistic beliefs, which are a universal feature in religion, and also observed among non-human primates”.

In contrast, more complex religious ideas, such as ancestor worship and belief in high gods, the authors argue, would have required a full-fledged language rather than a more advanced Theory of Mind. As Straffon summarizes,

“The relevance of language for the spread of religious beliefs is not predicted by other models, yet our work shows that it indeed was an important contribution to the evolution of religion.”


This paper attests to the value of large-scale cross-disciplinary collaboration, and the synergies to be drawn from it, that a centre like SapienCE both makes possible and allows to mature. It is also part of the legacy of one of its earliest members, Sieghard Beller, who did not get to live to see it blossom. The work reported here owes an immeasurable amount to his inspiration, scientific curiosity, astuteness, erudition, and diligence.