John Tooby (1952-2023)

JOHN TOOBY (July 26, 1952-November 9, 2023) was the founder of the field of Evolutionary Psychology, co-director (with his wife, Leda Cosmides) of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara. He received his PhD in biological anthropology from Harvard University in 1989 and was professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Tooby and Cosmides also co-founded and co-directed the UCSB Center for Evolutionary Psychology and jointly received the 2020 Jean Nicod Prize.

Tooby was known for his work with his collaborators to integrate cognitive science, cultural anthropology, evolutionary biology, paleoanthropology, cognitive neuroscience, and hunter-gatherer studies to create the new field of evolutionary psychology, toward the goal of the progressive mapping of the universal evolved cognitive and neural architecture that constitutes human nature and provides the basis of the learning mechanisms responsible for culture. This involves using knowledge of specific adaptive problems our hunter-gatherer ancestors encountered to experimentally map the design of the cognitive and emotional mechanisms that evolved among our hominid ancestors to solve them.

At UCSB's Center for Evolutionary Psychology, he and his collaborators used cross-cultural, experimental, and neuroscience techniques to investigate specific cognitive specializations for cooperation, coalitions, group psychology, and human reasoning. Under Tooby's direction, the Center maintained a field station in Ecuadorian Amazonia in order to conduct cross-cultural studies of psychological adaptations and human behavioral ecology. He was particularly interested in documenting how the design of these adaptations shapes cultural and social phenomena, and potentially forms the foundation for a new, more precise generation of social and cultural theories. Tooby, a valued member of the Edge community, wrote numerous essays in response to the Edge Annual Question, examples of which we are pleased to share below. John Tooby's Edge Bio Page 

Coalitional Instincts

Coalition-mindedness makes everyone, including scientists, far stupider in coalitional collectivities than as individuals. Paradoxically, a political party united by supernatural beliefs can revise its beliefs about economics or climate without revisers being bad coalition members. But people whose coalitional membership is constituted by their shared adherence to "rational," scientific propositions have a problem when—as is generally the case—new information arises which requires belief revision. To question or disagree with coalitional precepts, even for rational reasons, makes one a bad and immoral coalition member—at risk of losing job offers, one's friends, and one's cherished group identity. This freezes belief revision.   


The Race Between Genetic Meltdown and Germline Engineering 

The most remarkable breaking news in science is that I exist. Well, not just me. People like me who, without technology, would have died early. Of the roughly 5.5 billion people who survived past puberty, perhaps only one billion would be here were it not for modern sanitation, medicine, technology, and market-driven abundance. Ancestrally, the overwhelming majority of humans died before they had a full complement of children, often not making it past childhood. For those who live in developed nations, our remodeled lifetables are among the greatest of the humane triumphs of the Enlightenment—delivering parents from the grief of holding most of their children dead in their arms, or of children losing their parents (and then themselves dying from want).


The Iron Law of Intelligence 

The universe is vast and full of illimitable layers of rich structure; brains (or computers) in comparison are infinitesimal. To reconcile this size difference, evolution sifted for hacks that were small enough to fit the brain, but that generated huge inferential payoffs—superefficient compression algorithms (inevitably lossy, because one key to effective compression is to throw nearly everything away).


Learning and Culture

All "learning" operationally means is that something about the organism's interaction with the environment caused a change in the information states of the brain, by mechanisms unexplained. All "culture" means is that some information states in one person's brain somehow cause, by mechanisms unexplained, "similar" information states to be reconstructed in another's brain. The assumption is that because supposed instances of "culture" (or equally, "learning") are referred to with the same name, they are the same kind of thing. Instead, each masks an enormous array of thoroughly dissimilar things. Attempting to construct a science built around culture (or learning) as a unitary concept is as misguided as attempting to develop a robust science of white things (egg shells, clouds, O-type stars, Pat Boone, human scleras, bones, first generation MacBooks, dandelion sap, lilies…). 


Unfriendly Physics, Monsters from the ID, and Self-Organizing Collective Delusions 

Indeed, the enterprise of science is—as an ideal—specifically devoted to improving the accuracy of beliefs. We can pinpoint where this analysis goes awry, however, when we consider the multiple functions of holding beliefs. We take for granted that the function of a belief is to be coordinated with reality, so that when actions are based on that belief, they succeed. The more often beliefs are tested against reality, the more often accurate beliefs displace inaccurate ones (e.g., through feedback from experiments, engineering tests, markets, natural selection). However, there is a second kind of function to holding a belief that affects whether people consciously or unconsciously come to embrace it—the social payoffs from being coordinated or discoordinated with others' beliefs (Socrates' execution for "failing to acknowledge the gods the city acknowledges"). The mind is designed to balance these two functions: coordinating with reality and coordinating with others. The larger the payoffs to social coordination, and the less commonly beliefs are tested against reality, then the more social demands will determine belief—that is, network fixation of belief will predominate. Physics and chip design will have a high degree of coordination with reality, while the social sciences and climatology will have less.


Falling Into Place: Entropy, Galileo's Frames of Reference, and the Desperate Ingenuity of Life 

The hardest choice I had to make in my early scientific life was whether to give up the beautiful puzzles of quantum mechanics, nonlocality, and cosmology for something equally arresting: to work instead on reverse engineering the code that natural selection had built into the programs that made up our species' circuit architecture. In 1970, the surrounding cultural frenzy and geopolitics made first steps toward a nonideological and computational understanding of our evolved design, "human nature," seem urgent; the recent rise of computer science and cybernetics made it seem possible; the almost complete avoidance of and hostility to evolutionary biology by behavioral and social scientists had nearly neutered those fields, and so made it seem necessary.


Nexus Causality, Moral Warfare, and Misattribution Arbitrage 

Here are three simple conceptual tools that might help us see in front of our noses: nexus causality, moral warfare, and misattribution arbitrage. Causality itself is an evolved conceptual tool that simplifies, schematizes, and focuses our representation of situations. This cognitive machinery guides us to think in terms of the cause—of an outcome having a single cause. Yet for enlarged understanding, it is more accurate to represent outcomes as caused by an intersection or nexus of factors (including the absence of precluding conditions).


I Seem to be Metadata

Obliterating whole lineages—diatoms and dinosaurs, corals and crustaceans, ammonites and amphibians—shockwaves from the Yucatán impact 65 million years ago ripped through the intricate interdependencies of the planetary ecosystem, turning blankets of life into shrouds in one incandescent geological instant. Knocking out keystone species and toppling community structures, these shifts and extinctions opened up new opportunities, inviting avian and mammalian adaptive radiations and other bursts of innovation that transformed the living world—and eventually opening the way for our placenta-suckled, unprecedentedly luxuriant brains.

What with one thing and another, now here we are: the Internet and the World Wide Web that runs on it have struck our species' informational ecology with a similarly explosive impact, their shockwaves rippling through our cultural, social, economic, political, technological, scientific, and even cognitive landscapes.


The Great Pivot: Artificial Intelligences, Native Intelligences, and the Bridge Between

Humanity will continue to be blind slaves to the programs that evolution has built into our brains until we drag them into the light. Ordinarily, we only inhabit the versions of reality they spontaneously construct for us—the surfaces of things. Because we are unaware we are in a theater, with our roles and our lines largely written for us by our mental programs, we are credulously swept up in these plays (such as the genocidal drama of us versus them). Endless chain reactions among these programs leave us the victims of history—embedded in war and oppression, enveloped in mass delusions and cultural epidemics, mired in endless negative sum conflict.