Journal Article

The Decoupled Representation Theory of the Evolution of Cognition—A Critical Assessment

Wayne Christensen

in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Published on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science

Volume 61, issue 2, pages 361-405
Published in print June 2010 | ISSN: 0007-0882
Published online February 2010 | e-ISSN: 1464-3537 | DOI:
The Decoupled Representation Theory of the Evolution of Cognition—A Critical Assessment

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Sterelny’s Thought in a Hostile World ([2003]) presents a complex, systematically structured theory of the evolution of cognition centered on a concept of decoupled representation. Taking Godfrey-Smith’s ([1996]) analysis of the evolution of behavioral flexibility as a framework, the theory describes increasingly complex grades of representation beginning with simple detection and culminating with decoupled representation, said to be belief-like, and it characterizes selection forces that drive evolutionary transformations in these forms of representation. Sterelny’s ultimate explanatory target is the evolution of human agency. This paper develops a detailed analysis of the main cognitive aspects. It is argued that some of the major claims are not correct: decoupled representation as defined doesn’t capture belief-like representation, and, properly understood, decoupled representation turns out to be ubiquitous among multicellular animals. However, some of the key ideas are right, or along the right lines, and suggestions are made for modifying and expanding the conceptual framework.


The Core Structure of the Theory 2.1

The environmental complexity thesis


The evolution of beliefs and desires


The evolution of decoupled representation


The evolution of preferences

Clarifying the Structure of the Theory 3.1

Initial taxonomic questions


Integrative behavior control


Behavior management


Initial selection questions


Flexible control and internal complexity



Journal Article.  17158 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Philosophy of Science ; Science and Mathematics

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