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- Category: Publications
- Published on Friday, 05 June 2009 12:21
- Written by Dan Sperber
Forthcoming in Current Biology: "Reconstructing the Evolution of Laughter in Great Apes and Humans" by Marina Davila Ross, Michael J Owren, & Elke Zimmermann
Summary: Human emotional expressions, such as laughter, are argued to have their origins in ancestral nonhuman primate displays. To test this hypothesis, the current work examined the acoustics of tickle-induced vocalizations from infant and juvenile orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos, as well as tickle-induced laughter produced by human infants. Resulting acoustic data were then coded as character states and submitted to quantitative phylogenetic analysis. Acoustic outcomes revealed both important similarities and differences among the five species. Furthermore, phylogenetic trees reconstructed from the acoustic data matched the well-established trees based on comparative genetics. Taken together, the results provide strong evidence that tickling-induced laughter is homologous in great apes and humans and support the more general postulation of phylogenetic continuity from nonhuman displays to human emotional expressions. Findings also show that distinctively human laughter characteristics such as predominantly regular, stable voicing and consistently egressive airflow are nonetheless traceable to characteristics of shared ancestors with great apes.
- Category: Brian's blog
- Published on Wednesday, 03 June 2009 15:11
- Written by Brian Malley
Some of the most enduring kinds of cultural traditions have been interpretive in nature. My research has focused on the interaction of cognition and culture surrounding the Christian Bible, but in this series I am explore a broader general model of interpretive traditions. This is the fourth post in the series: interested readers may find the rest of the posts in "Brian's blog."
Recently I have been reading about Shaolin traditions of kungfu, chigung, and meditation, and I have repeatedly encountered the claim that Buddhist meditators centuries ago intuited the structure of the universe as it has been revealed by modern cosmology and quantum mechanics. These sorts of claims are not uncommon in scriptural traditions, and it is easy to find similar Muslim or Christian claims that their scriptures anticipated modern scientific discoveries and technological achievements. Of course, such claims are plausible principally to people who already subscribe to tradition, and outsiders looking at the same text are seldom impressed.
There are a couple of different processes involved in this phenomenon, but the critical one for my present purpose is the attribution of a representation to an interpretand, in this case, a religious text.
As I define it, an interpretation is a mental representation of the form [interpretand] says/means/teaches [interpretive representation]. This relationship says/means/teaches I call attribution, because it involves the attribution of a concept or statement or impression to the interpretand. (My use of interpretation is unusual in that it includes the attribution as part of an interpretation along with the interpretive representation.) In this post I will attempt to circumscribe and, to some degree, characterize the relationship of attribution, and to point out what I think is significant about it.
Richard Nisbett and his collaborators have carried out an extensive program of experimental cross-cultural psychology, mostly aimed at establishing differences between the ways of thinking of Easterners and Westerners. Some of the differences they have studied pertain to the domain of argumentation: Easterners are supposed not to be really bothered by contradiction (making arguing tricky) and to frown upon the debates and discussions that threaten social harmony. These claims are based partly on a survey of the anthropological, sociological and historical literature, partly on some experimental results. I have attempted to reinterpret some of these data in order to show that the situation is somewhat more complicated than could be thought at first (for more detail, see my submitted paper). Recent scholarship shows that the ancient Chinese were in fact skilled arguers, and that debates and dissension were rife during both Chinese and Japanese history. The experimental data is also open to weaker reinterpretations, highlighting the commonalities between Eastern and Western style of thoughts, as well as the extreme context-dependency of cognitive mechanisms.
Han Fei, the Chinese Cicero Cicero, the Roman Han Fei
- Category: Jobs
- Published on Tuesday, 02 June 2009 10:41
- Written by Dan Sperber
- Category: Nicolas Claidière's blog
- Published on Monday, 01 June 2009 01:00
- Written by Nicolas Claidière
In a recent review Mark Pagel argues that language is a culturally transmitted replicator (Pagel, 2009).
Pagel starts by offering a useful update on phylogenetic methods and then uses a comparison between genetics and language phylogenetic trees to reveal similarities between cultural and biological evolution. He argues that borrowing and corruption, which could in principle be very important in the case of languages and make phylogenetic reconstruction difficult if not impossible, are, in fact, very limited. Pagel notes: "If languages are not the ‘closed shop’ to outside influences that we have come to expect of eukaryotic organisms with sequestered germ lines, the strength of descent with modification in language trees shows that the cultural processes of language teaching and learning that transmit language from one generation to the next can have a surprisingly high fidelity and can show resistance to outside effects." To put it briefly, phylogenetic trees show, or so it is claimed, that languages are faithfully reproduced from one generation to the next.
Figure 1: The phylogenetic tree of Indo-European languages, based on the Swadesh list of 200 words.
- Category: Dan's blog
- Published on Sunday, 31 May 2009 01:30
- Written by Dan Sperber
(Ten year ago or so, Maurice Bloch and I started discussing a basic issue in folk-epistemic, the variety of notions of truth across cultures, and we ran several workshops in Paris with psychologists, historians, and anthropologists on the theme. I would like to revive the discussion, maybe in the form of an online workshop, but first, let me raise the issue on this blog.)
Do considerations of "truth" play a role in human intellectual and social practices in all cultures? Are diverse notions of truth involved both across and within cultures? Are implicit notions of truth involved, and, if so, how do they relate to explicit notions? In which cultural practices and domains of discourse is a notion of truth invoked? Are there institutions and social positions which entertain a privileged relationship with "truth"?
There is a rich philosophical, philological, and historical literature relevant to the issue and concerning literate, and more specifically, scholarly traditions (Ancient Greece, Buddhism, judicial practices, modern science - to mention just two examples, Marcel Détienne's The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece, and Steven Shapin's A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England) . Anthropological literature hardly ever directly addesses the issue (Pascal Boyer's Tradition as Truth and Communication: A Cognitive Description of Traditional Discourse being a notable exception), even if it often contains relevant data collected from a different perspective.
- Category: Dan's blog
- Published on Thursday, 21 May 2009 15:30
- Written by Dan Sperber
In the May 19, 2009 issue of PNAS, an article by Wai Ting Siok, Paul Kay, William S. Y. Wang, Alice H. D. Chana, Lin Chen, Kang-Kwong Luk and Li Hai Tan shows that "Language regions of brain are operative in color perception" (article freely available here). It is nice to see how far we are, in this classical area of anthropological debate, from the old nature/nurture all-or-nothing: It turns out the left hemisphere is more Whorfian than the right one!
Here is the abstract:
- Category: Hugo Viciana's blog
- Published on Tuesday, 19 May 2009 22:43
- Written by Hugo Viciana
- Category: Jobs
- Published on Tuesday, 19 May 2009 00:27
- Written by Dan Sperber
The Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, London, a thriving centre of research and teaching with around 450 undergraduates, 100 postgraduates and 30 staff, is seeking an excellent researcher and teacher whose work will complement ongoing research within one of its 6 research clusters: cognition and culture, neurodevelopmental disorders, individual differences and psychopathology, social relationships, cognition, cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology plus work psychology. You will have a PhD and a track record of relevant research, published in international peer-reviewed journals, plus evidence of, or clear plans for developing, an externally-funded research programme. You will demonstrate the enthusiasm and skills to teach students, and supervise their research, at all levels of our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. For further information: www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/jobs . Closing date: Monday 8 June 2009.
- Category: Roberto's blog
- Published on Tuesday, 12 May 2009 01:00
- Written by Denis Dutton
(Editor's note) Denis Dutton is kind enough to reply at length to Roberto Casati's skeptical review of his book, The Art Instinct. The review has sparked a heated debate between Duttonites and Casatites on this blog.
Like most authors, I appreciate any thoughtful analysis of my work, and for me that includes Roberto Casati’s review of my book. I won’t take up all Casati’s provocative points, but just a few, and not in the order he presents them.
At the close of his remarks, Casati says that my “intimidating name-dropping occasionally gets tiresome – "the Iliad, the Cathedral at Chartres, Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine, Breughel's Hunters in the Snow, Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji" etc. The list he refers to here is in the book’s introduction, where I am describing my intention in the last chapter to discuss the what I take to be Clive Bell’s “cold white peaks of art,” the summits of artistic achievement. The list is therefore to give the reader examples of the what I regard as greatest art in history. It does not, as Casati claims, “go on and on,” but has four further items: Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Schubert’s Winterreise, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Beethoven’s Sonata op. 111.
Where is the intimidation here? Most people are taught about the Iliad, or will have seen a movie based on it, will often know “Tintern Abbey,” if they have studied English poetry, will have seen that Breughel painting, will know something about Chartres, and will have seen “The Wave,” the most famous of all Japanese woodcuts, even if they don’t know that it forms part of Hokusai’s series. Yes, maybe Winterreise is a bit obscure, and a lot of people don’t know the Opus 111. I’m not sure about the Leonardo choice; I was avoiding the Mona Lisa, a great painting but also, alas, a cliché. Again: that list is intended to denote examples of the highest of high art, and yet be familiar enough that most readers will recognize a couple of items on it.
Casati continues: “If I want to learn something about the arts, I need to know what is it that makes Schubert's Winterreise a masterpiece, and it is not by enlisting it along other masterpieces and adding that “their nobility and grandeur ... flow from their ability to address deep human instincts” that we'll make progress in understanding.” But that is what is discussed in the last chapter, as promised in the introduction. And by the way, I stand by the phrase “nobility and grandeur.” If anyone finds such notions corny, or Victorian, or embarrassing, so be it.
Intimidation? Excuse me, but that is something that art theorists, especially those of a poststructuralist stripe, have been inflicting on readers for the last forty years or more – talking down to their audiences with obscure jargon and esoteric references.
- Category: Helen De Cruz's blog
- Published on Thursday, 07 May 2009 19:11
- Written by Helen De Cruz
At the recent EHBEA conference held April 6-8 at Saint Andrews, I saw presentations by both Andrew Whiten (a primatologist who specializes on nonhuman cultural traditions, especially in chimpanzees) and Christine Caldwell (who examines cumulative cultural evolution in the lab). It was interesting to see the question of cumulative cultural evolution from these two very diverging perspectives.
It is now generally established that nonhuman animals, including chimpanzees, macaques and a variety of bird species, display a socially transmitted behaviors, which in humans are termed cultures. However, to date the evidence for cumulative cultural evolution in nonhumans remains sporadic. For example, in the case of nut-cracking chimpanzees in the Taï forest, there is little variation in how nuts are being processed, i.e., cracked by means of a hammer and anvil, and whereas some individuals have learned to use auxilliary stones to stabilize the anvil, this innovation has not spread to the entire population. The question is: why not?
Andrew Whiten recently co-authored a study in which chimpanzees were confronted with an optimal and cumulatively built technique for extracting honey from an artificial device. Whereas the individuals learned the simple 'dipping' technique with ease, they did not master the more complex 'probing' technique, which built on elements of the dipping technique they already mastered. The chimpanzees thus got 'stuck' at a simple but suboptimal technique, although control tests showed that the more difficult technique was not beyond their cognitive capacities. Why would this be? Whiten tentatively suggested in the paper that chimpanzees may be 'conservative', unwilling to try a new technique if the one they already knew was good enough.
Another line of reasoning, which has garnered much attention, is that of Tomasello.
- "Mind and Culture": Rutgers / Siena Workshop in Siena
- The interpretive process
- Cross-cultural variation in creationism
- The Social Self - Summer School in Alghero
- Success or Prestige? Hunters' cultural biases
- Interviews with some Great Ancestors
- Book review : The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton.
- Wellcome Trust School on Biology of Social Cognition
- Incest in France
- Institutions again - What is a primitive society?