Is kinship back?

In the last issue of Science (25 May, 2012), a plea by Stephen Levinson for the study of kinship terminology, and an article by Charles Kemp and Terry Regier making a novel contribution to that study.

Charles Kemp talks about his and Regier's research

Levinson writes: "In 1860, Lewis Henry Morgan heard an Iowa man on a Nebraska reservation describe a small boy as “uncle.” Fascinated, he embarked on lifelong research into the kinship systems of the world’s cultures, which culminated in a typology of kin categories. Work on kinship categories flourished for a hundred years, but then became unfashionable. Yet, kinship is crucial to the transmission of human genes, culture, mores, and assets.  Recent studies have begun to reinvigorate the study of kinship categories. … Kinship is a fertile domain in which to ask a question at the heart of the cognitive sciences: Why do humans have the conceptual categories they do? … There are more than 6000 languages, each with a different system of kin classification, at least in detail. … What constrains this exuberant diversity of systems?"

In their article entitled "Kinship categories across languages reflect general communicative principles" (available here), Kemp and Regier argue:

Read more: Is kinship back?

Why are some languages more regular than others?

Many years ago, I did anthropological fieldwork among the Dorze of Southern Ethiopia. Since no grammar of the Dorze language was available, I had to find out what were its basic morphological and syntactic rules. The good news was that once I had identified a rule, I could apply it across the board: there were hardly any exceptions. From this point of view, Dorze stood in sharp contrast with Amharic, the dominant language of then imperial Ethiopia. Amharic (like English) is a language with many irregularities. Dorze regularity was found not only at the morphological level, but also at the phonological level. The many words that had been borrowed from Amharic into Dorze had all, except for the most recent ones, acquired fully-regular dorze phonology.

Why are some languages quite regular and others not? I remember posing the question to the historical linguist Robert Hertzron, whom I met at the time in Addis Ababa. It is, he suggested, because, in the process of language acquisition, children tend spontaneously to over-regularize. They apply any rule they have acquired to all possible instances (in English, for instance, they may over-generalize the ordinary rule for past tense and say “he goed” instead of “he went”). In societies where adults correct children, these mistaken regularization are suppressed and irregularities are maintained; in societies where adults leave children alone in this respect, irregularities are less stable, and the language tends to be more regular. Gary Marcus et al. in their monograph on “Overregularization in language acquisition” (1992) quote Jill de Villiers half-joking: "Leave children alone and they'd tidy up the English language."

Read more: Why are some languages more regular than others?

An epidemiology-of-representations solution to a WWII shipwreck mystery


The Australian Cruiser HAMS Sidney

After a shameful lull in the activities of the ICCI (Sorry, folks!), we need something sensational – something, say, like Urbain Le Verrier’s famous conjecture that there had to be a yet unknown planet and his calculation of the location of Neptune that led to its actual sighting in 1846. Well, my story is not quite as sensational but I hope it will kick start a return to ICCI full speed. It involves two psychologists, John Dunn and Kim Kirsner, using cognitive and mathematical analyses of old testimonies to locate a German and an Australian warship that, in 1941, had been engaged in a firefight somewhere off the west coast of Australia and had both sunk. While none of the 645 men onboard the Australian HMAS Sydney survived, 317 sailors from the German cruiser Kormoran did, were picked up by the Australian navy, and interrogated. About 70 of them gave some indications of the location of the event. The locations they indicated however were spread out over hundreds of miles. Even assuming that the prisoners were not trying to deceive their captors, their testimonies seemed impossible to exploit.

Read more: An epidemiology-of-representations solution to a WWII shipwreck mystery

David Hume, the anthropologist, born May 7, 1711

Hume

David Hume, described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as "the most important philosopher ever to write in English," was born 300 years ago. All anthropologists should celebrate one of the greatest Founding Fathers of the discipline (but will they?), and we at the Cognition and Culture Institute are particularly inclined to do so since Hume commonly sought to explain human ideas, practices and institutions by articulating psychological and sociological considerations. I propose to our members and readers to contribute to this commemoration by selecting quotes from Hume of particular cognition-and-culture relevance and adding them to this post as comments. I begin with a longish quote from his section “On miracles” in the Enquiry on Human Understanding, which is relevant to what is now called 'social epistemology' and in particular to the study of epistemic vigilance and of course to the study of religious beliefs. Before this, just a little anecdote that should ring a bell for many young scholars who pay a serious career price for going against orthodoxies. In 1744, Hume, who had already published his Treatise of Human Nature and a collection of moral and political essays, applied for the ‘Chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy’ at the University of Edinburgh. However, the position was given to one William Cleghorn because of Hume's unorthodox views on religion.

Hume: 'On Miracles'

“A wise man… proportions his belief to the evidence.

Read more: David Hume, the anthropologist, born May 7, 1711

What the judge ate for breakfast

JudgeHow do people make decision? One view is that they arrive at their decisions by reasoning, using as premises their beliefs and desires. Another view is that people’s beliefs, desires, and decisions are largely determined by internalized cultural patterns. Particularly relevant to both approaches are judicial decisions, since judges are supposed to make decisions that apply cultural patterns, viz. laws, to specific cases. How much are their decisions really a matter of reasoning? How much are they quasi-automatic applications of internalized patterns? Or do yet other factors, that are neither a matter of rational choice nor a matter of internalized patterns, affect judicial decisions?

In an article forthcoming in PNAS, “Extraneous factors in judicial decisions” (available here), Shai Danziger,  Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso present evidence highly relevant to answering this question. They begin:

“Does the outcome of legal cases depend solely on laws and facts? Legal formalism holds that judges apply legal reasons to the facts of a case in a rational, mechanical, and deliberative manner. An alternative view of the law — encapsulated in the highly influential 20th century legal realist movement — is rooted in the observation of US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that “ the life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience ”. Realists argue that the rational application of legal reasons does not sufficiently explain judicial decisions and that psychological, political, and social factors influence rulings as well. The realist view is commonly caricaturized by the trope that justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast ”. We empirically test this caricature in the context of sequences of parole decisions made by experienced judges…”

Well, here are the striking results:

Read more: What the judge ate for breakfast

Creative pairs

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe (photo by Norman Seeff)

Hugo Mercier and I have of late been developing the idea that reasoning, typically seen as an activity of the individual thinker, is in fact a social activity aimed at exercising some control on the flow of communicated information by arguing in order to convince others and by examining others' arguments in order to be convinced only when appropriate (see here). With such ideas in mind, I was struck by the opening paragraphs of a the first of a series of essays by Joshua Wolf Shenk, (the author of Lincoln's Melancholy and a variety of essays in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Nation, Mother Jones, or the Atlantic Monthly)  on "Creative pairs" published at Slate:

"What makes creative relationships work? How do two people—who may be perfectly capable and talented on their own—explode into innovation, discovery, and brilliance when working together? These may seem to be obvious questions. Collaboration yields so much of what is novel, useful, and beautiful that it's natural to try to understand it. Yet looking at achievement through relationships is a new, and even radical, idea. For hundreds of years, science and culture have focused on the self. We talk of self-expression, self-realization. Popular culture celebrates the hero. Schools test intelligence and learning through solo exams. Biographies shape our view of history.

This pervasive belief in individualism can be traced to the idea most forcefully articulated by René Descartes. "Each self inhabits its own subjective realm," he declared, "and its mental life has an integrity prior to and independent of its interaction with other people." ..."

Read more: Creative pairs

Paul the Octopus, relevance and the joy of superstition

So, as you all know, Spain beat the Netherlands and won the World Football Cup in Johannesburg on July 11, 2010. As most of you may also know, this victory was predicted by a German octopus named Paul. Paul was presented before the match with two transparent boxes each baited with mussel flesh and decorated one with the Spanish flag, the other with the Dutch flag, and, yes, Paul the octopus correctly chose the Spanish flag box. One chance out of two, you might sneer, but Paul had correctly predicted, by the same method, the results of the seven matches in which the German team played. The probability of achieving by chance such a perfect series of prediction is 1/256 or 0.003906. More impressive, no? Paul the Octopus is now a TV news star: he has today more than 200,000 Google entries and more than 170,000 Facebook friends; he has received both death threats and commercial offers, and so on. On July 12, Paul's owners presented him with a replica World Cup trophy and announced that "he won't give any more oracle predictions - either in football, or in politics, lifestyle or economy."

Should you be impressed?

Read more: Paul the Octopus, relevance and the joy of superstition

“Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!” A reply to Frans de Waal

I am used to being attacked by fellow anthropologists for having a naturalistic approach and for arguing that cognitive science, experimental methods, and evolutionary theorizing are highly relevant to anthropology’s pursuit. Some of these attacks have been quite violent (one, in l’Homme 1982 concluded with the suggestion that, in order to show me the irrelevance of what is in the skull, I should be given a blow on the head); few if any have paid much attention to my precise claims, but at least they were quite right in targeting me as a naturalist. I am also used to having to work harder in order to get evolutionary biologists and comparative psychologists to pay attention to what I have to say than I would have to if I were one of them. That is understandable.

However, what happened in the past few days was a novel experience.

Read more: “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!” A reply to Frans de Waal

Believing Maurice Bloch on doubting, doubting him on believing

My friend Maurice Bloch and I have been arguing since even before we first met in the 70s. What makes it worthwhile is that there is much we agree on, and, once in a while, one of us causes the other to change his mind on some issue. There has been one issue however where I have failed to convince Maurice (and reciprocally, of course); it is about an old argument of mine regarding the disunity of beliefs. Since my 1982 paper “Apparently irrational beliefs”, I have argued that we should distinguish two mental attitudes toward a belief content, an ‘intuitive’ and ‘reflective’ belief attitude (see here). Intuitive beliefs are experienced as plain knowledge of fact without attention and generally without awareness of reasons to hold them to be facts.  Reflective beliefs are held for reasons that are mentally entertained. These reasons can be of two kinds: the authority of the source of the belief, or the sense that their content is such that it would be incoherent not to accept them.

Read more: Believing Maurice Bloch on doubting, doubting him on believing

Innocents fornicating and apes grieving

In his novel Abbé Mouret's Transgression (La faute de l'abbé Mouret, 1875), Emile Zola has a young priest, Serge Mouret, and a teenage girl, Albine, fall in love with each other without any understanding of what is happening to them. Neither of them knows anything about sex - they don't even seem to know that there is such a thing. So, Zola has a long and lyrical account of how paintings in the house they inhabit, and the luxuriance of nature around them slowly, help them discover what to do:

cezanne_zola

Cézanne's L'enlèvement inspired his friend Zola's La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret

"It was the garden that had planned and willed it all:

Read more: Innocents fornicating and apes grieving

Varieties of disbelief

On March 15, the Washington Post website put a link to a small ethnographic study by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola entitled "Preachers who are not Believers." In this remarkable piece, the authors present interviews of five protestant pastors who have lost their faith, and analyse their predicament. This is stirring a growing debate not only at the WaPo website, but also on the religious blogosphere (e.g. here, here, and here). It is of cognition-and-culture relevance because the interview, the analyses, and the arguments go into fine-grained discussions of the variety of cognitive attitudes involved in ‘belief', which, with a few exceptions, have been sorely lacking in the ethnography of religion.

Block and Kitcher review What Darwin Got Wrong by Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini

Given the strong reservations that most social scientists have towards evolutionary biology, they might welcome Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini's new book, What Darwin Got Wrong (2010), as they once did Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin famous article, "The Spandrels of San Marco" that criticized the so-called "adaptationist programme." From the book's blurb: "Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a distinguished philosopher and a scientist working in tandem, reveal major flaws at the heart of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Combining the results of cutting-edge work in experimental biology with crystal-clear philosophical arguments, they mount a reasoned and convincing assault on the central tenets of Darwin's account of the origin of species."

Before getting carried away however, read Ned Block and Philip Kitcher's review (here) in the Boston Review. In their conclusion, Block and Kitcher note: "Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini take the role of philosophy to consist in part in minding other people's business. We agree with the spirit behind this self-conception. Philosophy can sometimes help other areas of inquiry. Yet those who wish to help their neighbors are well advised to spend a little time discovering just what it is that those neighbors do [...] What Darwin Got Wrong shows no detailed engagement with the practice of evolutionary biology..."

Jingle Bell - Punjabi Tadka

When we started this blog, we hoped that anthropologists among our readers would be willing to contribute 'pictures of the week', photos (or videos) that would illustrate in a suggestive manner a theme of cognition-and-culture relevance, but we had very little success and, sadly, we have all but given up. Here however is video not from an ethnographer but suggested by 3QuarksDaily and borrowed from YouTube that illustrates in a pleasant and timely manner how cultural items borrowed in another culture get transformed in the direction of a better integration to their novel environment.

Original creation by: Nupur. Music by: Amartya Rahut.

Language faculty? Semiotic system? Or what?

To what extent does the use of language involve a language-specific ability, to what extent is it subserved by a more general symbolic or semiotic system? This is an old and ongoing controversy to which an article pre-published online in PNAS on Nov. 18, 2009 (doi: 10.1073/pnas.0909197106) and freely available here, "Symbolic gestures and spoken language are processed by a common neural system" by Jiang Xu, Patrick J. Gannon, Karen Emmorey, Jason F. Smith, and Allen R. Braun, makes an interesting contribution. Their abstract:

"Symbolic gestures, such as pantomimes that signify actions (e.g., threading a needle) or emblems that facilitate social transactions (e.g., finger to lips indicating ‘‘be quiet''), play an important role in human communication. They are autonomous, can fully take the place of words, and function as complete utterances in their own right. The relationship between these gestures and spoken language remains unclear. We used functional MRI to investigate whether these two forms of communication are processed by the same system in the human brain. ... Results support a model in which bilateral modality-specific areas in superior and inferior temporal cortices extract salient features from vocal- auditory and gestural-visual stimuli respectively. However, both classes of stimuli activate a common, left-lateralized network of inferior frontal and posterior temporal regions in which symbolic gestures and spoken words may be mapped onto common, corresponding conceptual representations. We suggest that these anterior and posterior perisylvian areas, identified since the mid-19th century as the core of the brain's language system, are not in fact committed to language processing, but may function as a modality-independent semiotic system that plays a broader role in human communication, linking meaning with symbols whether these are words, gestures, images, sounds, or objects"

Examples of pantomime (top row, English gloss: unscrew jar)
and of emblem (bottom row. English gloss:
I've got it!)

The authors distinguish different types of meaningful gestures. With good reasons, they focus on gestures that are neither linguistic, like in sign language, nor peri-linguistic like gesticulations accompanying speech. As in the two examples illustrated above, they look at what they call 'pantomimes' and 'emblems'. These cause similar patten of brain activation as their linguistic glosses.

I am not competent enough to interpret brain imagery evidence, let alone criticise it. Still, I would like to raise two issues.

Read more: Language faculty? Semiotic system? Or what?

Grieving animals?

Chimanzees mourning one of their own

Chimps line up to watch as Dorothy, who died of heart failure, is wheeled away.
Picture: Monica Szczupider, in the National Geographic Magazine (Nov. 2009)

The National Geographic Magazine reports: "On September 23, 2008, Dorothy, a female chimpanzee in her late 40s, died of congestive heart failure. A maternal and beloved figure, Dorothy had spent eight years at Cameroon's Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, which houses and rehabilitates chimps victimized by habitat loss and the illegal African bushmeat trade.... Szczupider, who had been a volunteer at the center, told me:  'Her presence, and loss, was palpable, and resonated throughout the group. The management at Sanaga-Yong opted to let Dorothy's chimpanzee family witness her burial, so that perhaps they would understand, in their own capacity, that Dorothy would not return. Some chimps displayed aggression while others barked in frustration. But perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence. If one knows chimpanzees, then one knows that [they] are not [usually] silent creatures.' "

Read more: Grieving animals?

Proper names in mind, language and culture

altProper names are a standard topic of anthropological research, focusing on the variety of naming systems across cultures and on the role of names in social relationships and verbal interactions (for a recent collection, see The Anthropology of names and naming, edited by Gabriele vom Bruck and Barbara Bodenhorn; Cambridge UP 2006). Proper names are also a standard topic in philosophy of language, where their contribution to the meaning of the utterances in which they occur raises a number of challenging issues. A major philosophical approach to proper names is that proposed by Saul Kripke in Naming and Necessity (1980) where he suggested that when a proper name, say "Plato", is effectively used, it succeeds in referring to the name-bearer via a causal chain that relates, through often countless acts of communication, the present use to the initial naming of Plato. With the role it gives to cultural transmission, this "causal theory of reference" (extended to natural kinds name by Hilary Putnam) can be seen as a properly anthropological theory. It has rarely however been fleshed out or discussed by anthropologists (Atran Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science,1990, pp 64-71, is one interesting exception), nor have philosophers paid much attention to the anthropology of proper names. As for the psychology of proper names, it has remained until recently an underdeveloped topic.

The last issue of Mind and language, Volume 24 Issue 4 (September 2009), with five papers on proper names, is particularly welcome in this context. It helps bridge the gap between philosophy and psychology. I hope it will inspire someone to work further on bridging the gap with anthropology. Read on for the abstracts.

Read more: Proper names in mind, language and culture

Inverse correlation between norms and behaviour?

We know, of course, that people don't strictly abide by the norms they publicly express: the flesh is weak, and so on, but, from an anthropological point of view, it would be surprising to see a complete disconnect between norms and behaviour. Even more surprising would be to see a reverse correlation, that is to have people who insist, "don't do A!" (for instance, don't commit adultery) do A more often than other people who have no strong objection to A. This, however, is exactly what is happening with American conservatives, according to Charles M. Blow (a New York Times's columnist with a blog about all things statistical and their visual expressions) who published on June 27 an op-ed with a fascinating chart (reproduced below) to prove it.

Read more: Inverse correlation between norms and behaviour?

Evolutionary psychology under attack

Since yesterday, a new thread of email exchanges is circulating among evolutionary psychologists under the title "Newsweek attack on evolutionary psychology." Geoffrey Miller informs us: "Journalist Sharon Begley is publishing a long, very negative, rather muddled attack on evolutionary psychology in Newsweek magazine ...Given Newsweek's influence, I'm concerned about this article's effects on our science's public image." Robin Dunbar, Steven Pinker, Dylan Evans and others discuss how to react, and, on the whole, favour ignoring the attack.

The article in Newsweek, with the telltale title "Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around? The fault, dear Darwin, lies not in our ancestors, but in ourselves" is a pathetic misrepresentation of evolutionary psychology, mentioning only work on mate choice and reproduction, giving pride of place to Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer's book on rape, and presenting the controversial claim that human rape is an adaptation as a central dogma of evolutionary psychology as a whole when not even Palmer agrees with it. Cultural diversity is presented as proving evolutionary psychologists wrong, as if, somehow, they had been unaware of it and had had nothing to contribute to its study. Behavioural ecology is represented as diametrically opposed to evolutionary psychology. And so forth. I assume that most readers of this blog are familiar enough with evolutionary psychology not to be misled by such poor reporting (or else Cosmides and Tooby's "Evolutionary psychology: A primer" is still a good place to start) .

Read more: Evolutionary psychology under attack

In memoriam: Nicola Knight


We mourn Nicola Knight who died this Tuesday, June 9, at the age of 33, from a heart attack. He was an active member of this Institute, a friend, a colleague, and a former student of many of us. The day before his death, he sent a new post for this blog, which we publish below.

Nicola was a lecturer and a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Anthropology and Mind and the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford. He held a BSc in Social Anthropology from LSE, an MSc in Human evolution and behaviour from UCL, and a dual PhD in Anthropology and Psychology from the University of Michigan. He had been visiting researcher at the Institut Jean Nicod in Paris and at the Centre for philosophy of natural and social science, LSE. He had published important articles on normativity, on religion, and on the epistemology of anthropology in the Journal of Cognition and Culture, Cognitive Science, the JRAI, and in several edited volumes. We all felt he would be a major contributor to the development of research in the area of cognition and culture in the years to come.

Our thoughts are with his wife, Maria Doglioli, and his family.

Truth among the...

(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.

Read more: Truth among the...

Is the left hemisphere more Whorfian than the right one?

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

Read more: Is the left hemisphere more Whorfian than the right one?

Success or Prestige? Hunters' cultural biases

Rob Boyd and Pete Richerson have identified two biases, one based on success, the other on prestige, that might influence which individual is most imitated. If you were living in a foraging society, would you rather imitate prestigious hunters or successful ones? Successful ones, you say? It may not be so easy or so argue Kim Hill and Keith Kintigh in "Can Anthropologists Distinguish Good and Poor Hunters? Implications for Hunting Hypotheses, Sharing Conventions, and Cultural Transmission" by  (in Current Anthropology Volume 50, Number 3, June 2009) available here.

Here is the Abstract:

Numerous articles examine the relationship between men's hunting skill and other important biological and social traits. We analyzed more than 14,000 hunter days during 27 years of monitoring the Ache of Paraguay by using resampling methods to demonstrate that large sample sizes are generally required in order to distinguish individual men by hunting skill. A small published study on !Kung hunters shows that large‐game hunters are even more difficult to distinguish by individual skill level. This is a serious problem because regressions using noisy hunting data as the independent variable systematically underestimate the association of hunting ability with other biosocial traits. The analysis suggests that some coresidents in many small‐scale societies will be unable to accurately distinguish hunters by skill level, possibly favoring groupwide meat‐sharing conventions and biased cultural transmission that emphasizes prestige rather than perceived hunting skill.

The future of human cooperation: Some minuscule evidence

I look at the table of content and some abstracts in several journals, and, last week, one abstract really caught my attention. Here is how it begins:


"Globalization magnifies the problems that affect all people and that require large-scale human cooperation, for example, the overharvesting of natural resources and human-induced global warming. However, what does globalization imply for the cooperation needed to address such global social dilemmas? Two competing hypotheses are offered. One hypothesis is that globalization prompts reactionary movements that reinforce parochial distinctions among people. Large-scale cooperation then focuses on favoring one's own ethnic, racial, or language group. The alternative hypothesis suggests that globalization strengthens cosmopolitan attitudes by weakening the relevance of ethnicity, locality, or nationhood as sources of identification. In essence, globalization, the increasing interconnectedness of people worldwide, broadens the group boundaries within which individuals perceive they belong. We test these hypotheses..."


Are humans getting better at living together, as one hopes, or are we heading towards a world of moral, political and material misery, as one may fear? This is indeed a major issue, and I would welcome any contribution to a better understanding of it. So I read the paper, "Globalization and human cooperation" by Nancy R. Buchan, Gianluca Grimalda Rick Wilson, Marilynn Brewer, Enrique Fatas, and Margaret Foddy (PNAS March 17, 2009 vol. 106 no. 11 4138-4142). The paper is available here.


Could an experiment really help us decide between an optimistic and a pessimistic view? Here is what the authors did.

Read more: The future of human cooperation: Some minuscule evidence

Individual recognition in horses, monkeys and humans

In the last issue of PNAS (January 20, 2009; 106 (3)), there is an article on "Cross-modal individual recognition in domestic horses (Equus caballus)" by Leanne Proops, Karen McComb and David Reby. Here is the abstract:


"Individual recognition is considered a complex process and, although it is believed to be widespread across animal taxa, the cognitive mechanisms underlying this ability are poorly understood. An essential feature of individual recognition in humans is that it is cross-modal, allowing the matching of current sensory cues to identity with stored information about that specific individual from other modalities. Here, we use a cross-modal expectancy violation paradigm to provide a clear and systematic demonstration of cross-modal individual recognition in a nonhuman animal: the domestic horse. Subjects watched a herd member being led past them before the individual went of view, and a call from that or a different associate was played from a loudspeaker positioned close to the point of disappearance. When horses were shown one associate and then the call of a different associate was played, they responded more quickly and looked significantly longer in the direction of the call than when the call matched the herd member just seen, an indication that the incongruent combination violated their expectations. Thus, horses appear to possess a cross-modal representation of known individuals containing unique auditory and visual/olfactory information. Our paradigm could provide a powerful way to study individual recognition across a wide range of species."

This article is discussed in a comment by Robert M. Seyfarth and Dorothy L. Cheney, "Seeing who we hear and hearing who we see," who begin:

Read more: Individual recognition in horses, monkeys and humans

Why does sneezing elicit blessing?

I have long been puzzled by the title question, and have never come across a satisfactory answer. So, let me share the puzzle and raise a few more specific questions:


A) Ethnographic questions :

  1. Examples of different blessing elicited by sneezing (e.g., among the Dorze of Southern Ethiopia where I did fieldwork, “bear a son” for a woman, “kill an elephant” for a man, “grow up” for a child)
  2. Examples of other hard to control sudden bodily events (coughing, belching, farting, and so on) eliciting a standard reaction
  3. Folk interpretations of these practices
  4. Examples of societies without any such pairing of sneezing and blessing


B) Anthropological question:


Why should such practices be widespread? (Attributing a universal meaning to sneezing, even if it were properly argued, would at best displace the question, not answer it)


C) Primatological question:

Any evidence of sneezing in other primates eliciting a specific reaction?

Please, DO help with answers!

Claude Lévi-Strauss: the first 100 years

Claude Lévi-Strauss - who is 100 years old today! - may well be the most famous anthropologist in the history of the discipline (or is it Margaret Mead?). Among French intellectuals, he cut a singular and imposing figure, second to none and close to none. By making their hearts beat faster with the promise of intellectual adventures, he attracted to anthropology generations of students - I one of them - who otherwise would have become philosophers, historians or sociologists. Unlike their master, many of these students became thorough fieldworkers and spent little time with theory. In his seminar, they would typically present ethnographic data and he would make theoretical comments. He did, and I remain grateful, encourage my own untypical theoretical musings in spite of their critical tenor, but I remember well that many of his followers saw them as presumptuous, as if, to his theorizing, one could at most hope to add exegeses and footnotes.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in the field

Say "Claude Lévi-Strauss," people answer "structuralism." Right, but he has been also, and quite consistently, a lone defender of a naturalistic and mentalistic perspective in anthropology. While his structuralism has been met with enthusiasm, his naturalistic perspective has been generally treated as an impropriety, an intellectual faux-pas one had better ignore. Lévi-Strauss undeterred insisted throughout his work on a naturalistic perspective...

Read more: Claude Lévi-Strauss: the first 100 years

Cosma Shalizi on Supernatural Horror in Electoral Politics

Some of you may not know Cosma Shalizi, one of the most interesting intellectuals and interdisciplinary scientists of our time. Well, the last post in his blog, Three-Toed Sloth asks an anthropological question about the cultural origin of the demonization in some quarters of the Democratic candidate to the American presidential election. Here is his post:

“What, you actually thought it was a coincidence that Election Day and Halloween are so close?

“On the one hand, Barack Hussein Obama: is he the candidate of a nefarious African conspiracy of cannibalistic pseudo-Christian Muslim witches, or the candidate of Lucifer himself?

“On the other hand, Cindy McCain is just like any other female human (via Pandagon).

Read more: Cosma Shalizi on Supernatural Horror in Electoral Politics

Tasty food for anthropological thought

Taste buds - From Gray's Anatomy

Picture: Taste buds from Gray's Anatomy


The alleged non-existence of universal colours categories provided a textbook illustration for cultural and linguistic relativism until Berlin and Kay’s published their famous Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution (1969), which has played a major role in the development of cognitive anthropology. On the other hand, the idea of four universal basic tastes, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, has been generally accepted, even in anthropology. In  “
A study of the science of taste: On the origins and influence of the core ideas(Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2008), 31:59-75, freely available online) Robert P. Erickson challenges this idea from a neuropsychological point of view.

Here is the abstract:

Read more: Tasty food for anthropological thought

Ideas of immanent justice in cognition and culture

How common in cognitive development and how widespread across cultures is the idea of immanent justice, with the good or bad fortune being seen as generally deserved and even as a sign of the moral worth of lucky or unlucky people? A new article by Kristina R. Olson, Yarrow Dunham, Carol S. Dweck, Elizabeth S. Spelke and Mahzarin R. Banaji, “Judgments of the Lucky Across Development and Culture” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008, Vol. 94, No. 5, 757–776) provides novel and relevant experimental evidence.

The abstract:

For millennia, human beings have believed that it is morally wrong to judge others by the fortuitous or unfortunate events that befall them or by the actions of another person. Rather, an individual’s own intended, deliberate actions should be the basis of his or her evaluation, reward, and punishment. In a series of studies, the authors investigated whether such rules guide the judgments of children. The first 3 studies demonstrated that children view lucky others as more likely than unlucky others to perform intentional good actions. Children similarly assess the siblings of lucky others as more likely to perform intentional good actions than the siblings of unlucky others. The next 3 studies demonstrated that children as young as 3 years believe that lucky people are nicer than unlucky people. The final 2 studies found that Japanese children also demonstrate a robust preference for the lucky and their associates. These findings are discussed in relation to M. J. Lerner’s (1980) just-world theory and J. Piaget’s (1932/1965) immanent-justice research and in relation to the development of intergroup attitudes.

It would be particularly relevant to have studies on the topic combining experimental and standard ethnographic method and illuminating the relationship between the culturally affirmed views and the people’s (including children’s) spontaneous inference in the matter.

Picture: design by Erica Michaels.

Picture of the week: enteromancy among the Dorze of Southern Ethiopia

This picture, taken in 1969, shows two Dorze elders discussing how to interpret the entrails of a lamb that had just been slaughtered.



The pattern of blood vessels on the entrails represents genealogical relationships and blemishes show which of these relationships (with the living or with the dead) need mending.



Not quite your standard case of a cognitive tool or or of distributed cognition, but...

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A cultural practice, conjuring, gives food for thought to cognitive neuroscientists

Ideally, the relationship between the cognitive and the social sciences should be a reciprocal one. However, and with some notable exception (e.g. Berlin and Kay's work on colours), it has been more common to see cognitive psychology inspiring anthropological research that the other way around. Still many cultural practices reveal cognitive capacities and mechanisms that cognitive scientists would be unlikely to stumble on in the lab. One such practice, with many cultural variations, is that of conjuring or 'magic' done for entertainment. A team of practicing magicians and cognitive neuroscientists is publishing this week in Nature Reviews Neuroscience an article entitled: "Science and society: Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research" (full text freely available here).



The Conjurer, by Hieronymus Bosch ( Musée Municipal in St.-Germain-en-Laye, France)

Read more: A cultural practice, conjuring, gives food for thought to cognitive neuroscientists

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