Minds without Spines: Uncovering the Deep Structure of Mind, Meaning, and Morality

Minds without Spines
  • TWCF Number:


  • Project Duration:

    June 1, 2020 - May 31, 2024

  • Core Funding Area:

    Big Questions

  • Priority:

    Diverse Intelligences

  • Region:

    North America

  • Amount Awarded:


  • Grant DOI*:


  • *A Grant DOI (digital object identifier) is a unique, open, global, persistent and machine-actionable identifier for a grant.

Director: Rachell Powell

Institution: Trustees of Boston University

The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould famously argued that replaying the “tape of life” would result in a radically different set of animal forms. Although Gould’s thought experiment intended to make the case for the contingency of complex bodies, it is particularly provocative for the implications that it might have for the replicability of complex minds. Studies of convergent evolution, or the independent origination of similar biological forms in the living world, have challenged Gould’s thesis.

Much attention has been devoted to the importance of convergence as a general evolutionary phenomenon, but scholars have yet to systematically explore its philosophical implications for the deep structure of mind, meaning, and moral value. Directed by Russell Powell, this Diverse Intelligences project will bring together an international team of experts in the philosophy of evolution and cognition. They will examine what patterns of convergence in the evolution of social norms. 

Whereas many theorists assume that higher cognition or even language is necessary for the appearance of social norms, Prof. Powell’s team will develop a more inclusive account that encompasses far greater swaths of animal life. 

In short, the project will provide conceptual and empirical foundations for the bold claim that normativity and the moral value and valuing to which it gives rise are not accidental outcomes of human evolution but law-like fixtures of biospheres. This three-year project will result in two books, six journal articles, and an international conference.


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