Neuroscience and the fallacies of functionalism.
Smail's "On Deep History and the Brain" is rightly critical of the functionalist fallacies that have plagued evolutionary theory, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. However, his attempt to improve on these efforts relies on functional explanations that themselves oversimplify the lessons of neuroscience. In addition, like explanations in evolutionary psychology, they are highly speculative and cannot be confirmed or disproved by evidence. Neuroscience research is too diverse to yield a single picture of brain functioning. Some recent developments in neuroscience research, however, do suggest that cognitive processing provides a kind of “operating system” that can support a great diversity of cultural material. These developments include evidence of “top-down” processing in motor control, in visual processing, in speech recognition, and in “emotion regulation.” The constraints that such a system may place on cultural learning and transmission are worth investigating. At the same time, historians are well advised to remain wary of the pitfalls of functionalism.
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