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Words Are Thinking Tools: Praxotype

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Words are thinking tools (as Daniel Dennett notes). New word-tools can sometimes avoid the baggage built into prior terms and thinking patterns. “Praxotype” and “cognotype” might help us better model human nature’s complexities (prax- meaning action, practice; cogn- meaning thinking). Emily Dickinson declared, “The Brain—is wider than the Sky.” Similarly, our praxotypes are wider than our biology. And our sky-containing skulls contain opinions that exert forces on our physiology, configuring and scripting its reactions.

Biologists describe organisms in terms of genotypes (their gene sets) and phenotypes (traits they develop—genes aren’t all used). But those categories don’t fit well all our nuts and bolts. They don’t distinguish physiological from behavioral or cognitive traits. Usually all three trait types are subsets of genotypes. But not for us.

Much of our behavior, including what you’re doing at this precise moment (reading), isn’t in our genes. Our physical traits are subsets of our genotype, but our praxotypes (sets of behaviors) and cognotypes (sets of cognitive capabilities) aren’t. We inherit more than our genes, including modified environments, tools, second nature skill schooling, social rules, and thinking-tools, usually conflated as “culture.” Some of these have shaped our genes.

Praxotypes can be Lamarckian. Changed habits can be “inherited” if transmitted socially. Many species learn socially, but we do it the most by far.

Praxotypes can clarify “gene for X” thinking, which can make sense for physiological traits. But for traits that are—or depend on—complex behaviors, a “gene for X” is less likely.

Praxotype diversity suggests we should model motivations non-monolithically. Positing “utility” as the thing we always seek risks becoming circular (and unfalsifiable).

Regarding cognotypes it’s worth recalling how human nature was described before today’s seeming certainties arose. Hamlet oversteps in saying, “There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare was likely inspired by a Montaigne essay that quotes Cicero’s “grief lies not in nature but [in] opinion,” and describes how opinions, “error and dreams,” each “gains reality” by serving as cause for seeking pain and death. Darwin made the same point about “Hindoo” beliefs about food, not the food itself, having “soul-shaking” effects.

Montaigne said we are all “furnished… with similar tools and instruments for thought.” That’s true enough of our hardware. But our congnotypes are computer-like. They’re software configurable and extendable. Steven Pinker arguing against “The Blank Slate” model of human minds said we have a common “battery of emotions, drives and faculties for reasoning.” that can work like “setting a dial [or] flipping a switch” or like formulaic calculations. We can extend these “technomorphic” elements to include installable computer-like if-then logic scripts, which are contextually triggered and encode our cultures’ habits, social roles, explanatory stories, rules of thumb, and maxims. Some of these are blank-slate-like additions. So broadly programmable, they create “unnatural drives,” like seeking pain.

We are partly at the mercy of our cognotypes and opinions (some unchosen and tacit). They drive our actions and shape some of how our physiology reacts. Our “software” is highly configurable and upgradeable. Though we evolved by the same processes as other species, much about us is unique or uniquely developed. We’re likely the least genetically constrained species ever.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Previously in this series:

It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient
Inheriting Second Natures
Our Ruly Nature
It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories
Tools Are in Our Nature
We Fit Nature To Us: Evolutions two way street
Justice Is In Our Nature
Behavioral Telescope Shows How Cooperation Works
Selfish Genes Also Must Cooperate
Game Theory And The Golden Punishment Rule
Revolutionizing Economics by Evolutionizing it.
Science’s Mobile Army of Metaphors
Greek Myths About Human Origins
Evolutionary Economics And Darwin’s Wedge
Economics vs Fiction on Human Nature
Is Economics More Like History Than Physics?
Maxims Are Fitter Than Maximization
Food For Rethinking Markets
Non-grapefruit and fruitful non-science
Is Money Like Food?

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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