Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2007-2008 (archived)


Department: Philosophy


Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2007/08


  • None.


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • Understanding human nature through understanding the nature and evolution of our most distinctive characteristic, language, focussing both on principles of biological and cultural evolution.
  • Address language as an aspect of human culture, and the organizational principles of coherent organization and change in material culture and society.
  • Identify overarching organizational principles, which may affect both the evolution of society and language, and the broad conceptions of theoretical biology on which these models are based.
  • Present empirical findings on and discuss the evolved mental architecture that enters into the human linguistic ability, including its genetic basis.
  • Provide an entry point for the contemporary study of the evolution of mind and higher cognition in the broader context of a study of cultural evolution, with a particular focus on so-called complexity theory, which identifies exciting commonalities across diverse realms, from physics, biology, linguistics, and the social sciences.
  • Present biolinguistic and complexity-theoretic perspectives on the study of the evolution of mind and culture.
  • Enrich discussions of cultural evolution with some issues from the philosophy of mind.


  • The first of the 2-hour seminars will be taught jointly, as an overview of evolutionary theory and the major explanatory problems in the evolution of mind and culture.
  • Four language-focused lectures by Hinzen on language evolution then follow, which give detailed information about the object of study, language, especially in its structural dimensions. The focus is on the following questions: 1. What, if anything, is special to the human language faculty, and what of it is unique to humans? (Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch 2002) 2. Theoretical models of the architecture of the linguistic mind, with an emphasis on their evolutionary implications (Chomsky, Jackendoff, Tomasello). 3. Theoretical approaches to language evolution and their advantages and disadvantages: comparative approach, adaptationism, cultural learning, etc. Assumptions from evolutionary theory that enter into these approaches. 4. What does language tell us about the rest of the mind (language as a window to the mind)? Language and other forms of cognition: mathematics, morality.
  • Four culture-based lectures by Bentley follow: 1. Culture as an evolutionary process (overview). Can culture be modeled? A discussion of culture, emergence, and complexity. Readings by Ball, Mesoudi et al. and others. 2. Random copying versus independent thinking. The "wisdom of crowds" versus agency and (mindless?) imitation. Readings by Surowiecki, Hahn & Bentley, Ball and others. 3. Networks and small worlds - the structures in which we pass information. The rich get richer: self-organisation and power laws. Readings by Watts, Barabasi, Granovetter and others. 4. Collective action. Includes games theory and models of cooperation. readings by Henrich, Ball, and others.
  • A final joint seminar concludes the course (topic is kept open).

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Students with an interest in mind learn about a naturalistic perspective on the mind and the scope and limits of an evolutionary approach to higher cognitive abilities in general.
  • Students learn to adopt a perspective that is sensitive to both biological and cultural aspects of human evolution.
  • Students learn to assess the distinctiveness of cultural evolution, but also the possibility of overarching explanatory principles cutting across biology and culture.
  • Students learn about structural features of language that form particular obstacles to understanding the evolution of human language and culture, hence us.
  • Students benefit from the course's being co-taught, hence from its bringing in a strongly interdisciplinary perspective.
  • Students will learn to integrate both philosophical (philosophy of mind, philosophy of science) of human nature, and more empirical, anthropological aspects (material culture, empirical aspects of gene-culture co-evolution).
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Students will be able to:
  • Identify key issues, questions and debates concerning language as an aspect of human nature and its evolution.
  • Identify and make use of relevant literature.
  • Train their minds on assessing the correctness of widespread claims on the evolution of mind and culture in both science and the public domain.
  • Identify key explanatory problems in the evolution of language and culture, learn about their impact on some key philosophical and anthropological positions and employ advanced critical skills and conceptual knowledge to address the problem and defend the position.
  • Write an essay with an appropriately focused research question, a clear, knowledgeable discussion of the topic area, and a structured argument. Essays will display evidence of critical understanding and innovative thought.
Key Skills:
  • Students will be able to:
  • Identify and locate key research issues and research materials on a topic of high contemporary public concern.
  • Learn to write about and articulate a position in the relevant debates.
  • Pursue interdisciplinary research.
  • Exercise self-discipline, responsibility and autonomy in pursuing a research project.
  • Engage in disciplined reflection upon the nature and origin of their mind and human linguistic ability.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • The two-hour seminars consist of one-hour lectures plus ensuing, structured discussion. Group discussion allows students to clarify points and refine their views, through interaction with the seminar leader and their peers. One formative and one final summative essay document refinements in argumentative skills and intellectual sophistication regarding the subject matter of the course. A range of possible questions for the final essay is handed out in the beginning of the course so to as to make learning more directed, and focused. Yet, students are invited to submit their own proposals for final essays to the lectures. Joint seminars have the purpose of integrating different disciplinary perspectives and stimulate discussion across fields. For the summative essay, students will be required to focus on a specific research question, demonstrate advanced knowledge of the relevant literature, and develop a critical understanding of relevant ideas and arguments. Depending on their field of study, students can either direct their essay in a more philosophical or more anthropological direction, subject to agreement with the lecturers.
  • Philosophy students are required to attend the weekly student-led Taught MA in Philosophy Work-in-Progress Seminar, where they will be encouraged to present their ideas to peers and seek feedback. Both philosophy and anthropology students are also encouraged to attend relevant EIDOS (postgraduate philosophy society) talks and departmental Research Seminars. It is intended to bring in at last two lecturers from outside that provide additional stimulation for the course. These could come from the AHRC Centre for the evolution of cultural diversity, of which Bentley is a part.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 8 (4+4) Weekly 2 hours 16
One-to-one Supervisions 4 Flexible, as required 1 hour 4
Preparation and Reading 280
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 5000 words 100%

Formative Assessment:

An essay of 2000 words.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University