Nature, culture & the revival of the naturalistic paradigm

By Razib Khan | January 21, 2006 1:49 am

In the interview below with anthropologist Dan Sperber I allude to the “naturalistic paradigm” in anthropology. What does this mean? Sperber, along with Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer and Laurence Hirschfield are anthropologists who treat culture as an outgrowth of a natural and reducible process mediated by the human mind. Sperber often speaks of the “epidemiology of representations.” He examines the dynamics which constrain the transmission of cognitive representations within and between cultures, in short, memetics with an awareness of the limits and biases of the mind as elucidated by cognitive psychology.
The difference between the naturalistic paradigm and the standard social science model employed within cultural anthropology today is detailed very well in the short book Theological Incorrectness, by Jason D. Slone. Slone’s book is an elaboration on his doctoral thesis, where he argued that people often represent ideas about god(s) in their minds which are at sharp variance with their professed creeds. Despite the putatively narrow focus of Slone’s work the first third is an incisive critique of the standard anthropological program which is emphasizes “thick description” and “local pecularities” at the expense of general assertions and insights about human behavior. As Scott Atran notes, the problem with the localized model which emphasizes culturally based differences and mutual unintelligibility because of the lack of common references is that the very act of perception of difference indicates that those outside the culture can intuit the general character of that culture without being of that culture. In other words, the very act of going beyond assertion to argument implies knowledge and understanding which is denied by the argument!
The school of naturalistic anthropology deviates from this self-refutation and takes a step back from the continuous process of critique as it attempts to synthesize the findings of cognitive psychology, anthropology and evolutionary psychology. It assumes that humans have universal cognitive modalities which are constrained and canalized by biological points of departure. Our capacity for abstraction and system building is buffered by the nature of our intuitions about the world around us, and the semantic distinctions we make often have more to do with coalition building than a genuine difference of ontologies.
In short, while some would assert that the seminal function to analyze is:
Culture(input) = behavior
The naturalistical model might assert that the central dynamic of study is:
Mind(input) = culture
In other words, cultural is a function of the inputs into the human mind, as opposed to mind being conditioned by cultural filters.

  • Mark

    And please also consider Edwin Hutchins,
    “Distributed Cognition:”
    “According to Howard Gardner (1985) a more or less explicit decision was made in cognitive science to leave culture, context, history and emotion out of the early work. These were recognized as important phenomena, but their inclusion made the problem of understanding cognition very complex. The “Classical” vision of cognition that emerged was built from the inside out starting with the idea that the mind was a central logic engine. From that starting point, it followed that memory could be seen as retrieval from a stored symbolic database, that problem solving was a form of logical inference, that the environment is a problem domain, and that the body was an input device (Clark, 1996). Attempts to reintegrate culture, context, and history into this model of cognition have proved very frustrating. The distributed cognition perspective aspires to rebuild cognitive science from the outside in, beginning with the social and material setting of cognitive activity, so that culture, context, and history can be linked with the core concepts of cognition.” [5/18/00]
    And Matt Ridley, The Agile Gene:
    “Genes, unlike gods, are conditional. They are exquisitely good at simple if-then logic: if in a certain environment, then develop in a certain way … I suspect that science has so far greatly underestimated the number of gene sets which act in this way – conditioning their output to external conditions.”
    And “Tiny RNA molecules fine-tune the brain’s synapses: A new mechanism for regulating brain function –
    “This paper [Nature, 19 JAN 06] provides the first evidence that microRNAs have a role at the synapse, allowing for a new level of regulation of gene expression,” says senior author Michael Greenberg, PhD, Director of Neuroscience at Children’s Hospital Boston. “What we’ve found is a new mechanism for regulating brain function.” … The brain’s ability to form and refine synapses allows organisms to learn and respond to their environment, strengthening important synaptic connections, forming new ones, and allowing unimportant ones to weaken … Greenberg believes that miR-134 – and other microRNAs his lab is studying – may play a role in fine-tuning cognitive function by selectively controlling synapse development in response to environmental stimuli.”

  • razib

    one thing, the individuals are mentioned above are anthropologists. so the push toward culture has to some extent been driven by them. of course, michael tomasello is psych guy who has been pushing into culture.

  • Luke Lea

    razib wrote,
    “In other words, cultural is a function of the inputs into the human mind, as opposed to mind being conditioned by cultural filters.”
    Don’t you mean, “as much as”?
    Surely the influences run both ways: not only is culture a function of the mind, but the mind is to a very significant degree a function of culture –or, as that guy over at Edge put it recently, “the brain is a cultural artifact.”
    Culture is transmitted, we learn it from birth; it has a powerful influence on how we see and interpret the world we live in in, and varies enormously around the world. All these variations presumably leave their physical marks on the brains of the peoples involved, whether in some form of “conditioning” or, if maintained over enough generations, in neuro-genetics. E.g., it is not inconceivable that cultures which value critical reasoning over superstition or authority tend to favor certain allelic polymorphisms (if that is the term for it) over those that don’t? Or am I misunderstanding you here?

    Luke Lea

  • Mark

    Along these lines, see also:
    Evolution and Culture
    A Fyssen Foundation Symposium
    Edited by Stephen C. Levinson and Pierre Jaisson
    Essays by Sperber, Dennett, Boyd & Richerson, Dunbar,
    Tomasello, Singer, Hauser, others.
    MIT Press, November 2005
    Excerpt from Introduction [available online] by Levinson:
    “We need some framework that — without any magic “skyhooks” as Dennett has it — can provide the mechanisms by which the biological preconditions for culture could have evolved in the normal way that organisms evolve, and culture could have progressively raised the stakes, so that the biological preconditions were ratcheted ever upward. As Theodor Dobzhanzy (1962) put it 40 years ago: “Human evolution cannot be understood as a purely biological process, nor can it be adequately described as a history of culture. There exists a feedback between biological and cultural processes.” … The interactions between [culture and genome] produce a great upward spiral in “design space” [Dennett], crucially with culture as part of the selecting environment, putting a premium on the underlying cognitive capacities that make the learning and production of cultural information possible …
    … one can look at … wiring of synaptic connections as a selective process (Changeaux 1985; Edelman 1987), with distinct kinds of selection — natural selection over deep time, developmental selection during early ontogeny and brain maturation, and selection over the life-span in response to environmental and cultural pressures … not so much a specific genetically determined brain component (running a single “native” machine code as it were) giving us Culture (with capital C) in the singular, but rather a highly adaptable computing device that can run any number of high level programs, giving us cultures in the plural … Culture is a way of generating phenotypic variants far broader than a strongly canalized expression of the genotype alone can manage …”
    “Once you have a certain minimum amount of “imitation learning” and “culture” in place, this culture can, in turn, exert the selection pressure for developing those additional mental traits that make us human . And once this starts happening you have set in motion the auto-catalytic process that culminated in modern human consciousness.” — V.S. Ramachandran
    Evolution and Learning
    The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered
    Edited by Bruce H. Weber and David J. Depew
    MIT July 2003
    G. Rizzolatti and M. Arbib (1998) “Language Within Our Grasp,”
    Trends in Neurosciences, 21(5):188-194).
    Available online: ["Readings"]
    Niche construction (Laland et al., 2000)
    Baldwin effect (Baldwin 1896; Deacon, 1997)

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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