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“I read Playboy for the articles”


Zoe Chance and Michael Norton have a delightful book chapter on the very creative ways in which people justify their questionable decisions. They report an experiment in which male participants were given a choice between subscriptions to two sport magazines. One covered more sports while the other had more featured articles. More interestingly, it was also mentioned that one of the magazines had a swimsuit edition (cf. figure : it should be noted that I only browsed through covers of swimsuit editions in order to find an illustration for this post). Want to take a guess at which magazine the participants preferred?

Boys being boys, they tended to pick the one with the advertized swimsuit edition, irrespective of its other features. This would hardly make the headlines (it's the reason there are swimsuit editions in the first place). More to the point, people felt compelled to justify their choice in a way that would be more acceptable than "I want to look at hot girls in bikini"...

As a result, when asked how much they valued the features of the two magazines, they tended to say that the feature on which the magazine with the swimsuit edition was stronger was the most important feature-whichever that feature was.

The paper is well worth a read because it also provides a concise summary of the experiments documenting the many ways in which people justify their morally dubious decisions.

Read more: “I read Playboy for the articles”

Alloparental care and wandering baby monkeys

Pierre Jacob recently discussed Sarah Hrdy's book Mothers and Others in which she argues that humans, like New World monkeys but unlike other apes, are cooperative breeders. As Pierre summarizes, cooperative breeding implies that newborns and youngsters have evolved the capacity to engage adults in caring for them and that adults have evolved the capacity to share the care of their offspring. Adults are therefore naturally attracted toward newborns, who eventually solicit their attention, and inexperienced mothers compete for newborns with other adults, including the mother, to gain more experience in parental care. The following video, just filmed by Mark Bowler at the Living Links Center in Edinburgh (where I am now pursuing my research) nicely illustrates Hrdy's description of alloparental care.

New born capuchin monkeys interacting with alloparents.

Read more: Alloparental care and wandering baby monkeys

Scott Atran: A memory of Lévi-Strauss


Margaret Mead, Franz Boas and Claude Lévi-Strauss on a Portuguese stampIn Memory of Claude Lévi-StraussIn Memory of Claude Lévi-Strauss

In Memory of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, arguably the world's most famous and influential anthropologist, died on October 30 at the age of 100. This is a lasting memory of my first encounter with him.

In 1974, when I was a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University, I wanted to organize a discussion of universals with people whose ideas I wished to know more about than I thought I could get from their writings. At the time, I was working for Margaret Mead as one of her assistants at the American Museum of Natural History, so I asked her how I might go about getting my wish. She said "talk to these people and see if they'll meet." So I went to see Noam Chomsky in Cambridge, Jean Piaget in Geneva, and Jacques Monod in Paris, and they agreed; but I wondered if Levi-Strauss would because he seemed so aloof . Margaret licked her lips and laughed: "Well, that's his look, aloof and frail, but he's more playful than he lets on and he'll outlive me by thirty years if a day. Just tell him I sent you."

I ran from La Bastille to the College de France on Rue des Ecoles and up the steps to knock on his door. He opened it, saw the sweat running down my face and, asked rather coldly: "Monsieur, que'est-ce que je peux faire pour vous?" I said I was an anthropology student from America and had a bunch of questions for him. He was gracious but distant and said, "Ask two."

Read more: Scott Atran: A memory of Lévi-Strauss

A question about polemics

Recently I came across a quotation that expressed, with wonderful clarity, something that I kind of half-knew but had not articulated so well to myself.  The historian John P. Meier, in the course of an argument about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, made the following generalization (Meier 1991, IV:279):

Despite the theoretical purpose of addressing and confuting one’s adversaries outside, most religious apologetics and polemics are directed inward.  Their real function is to give a sense of assurance and reinforcement to the group producing the polemics.  Most apologetics and polemics are thus an attempt to shore up group solidarity and conviction within a community that feels insecure and under attack.  The a priori conviction of such polemics is simple and unshakeable: “We are right and they are wrong, and now we will think up some reasons to prove that they are wrong.”

A good social-scientific description this is not, but I think it is a sound observation nonetheless.

Read more: A question about polemics

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?


Hilary Evans and Robert Bartholomew have compiled and "Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior". This is quite an impressive endeavour that can be used for scholarly purposes (it is well referenced) and for fun (because people do weird things sometimes). The articles I've read so far have been on the skeptical side (e.g. on the mass hysterias or the Dutch tulip bubble), and so it seems that the this book avoids the dangerous pitfall of using these examples lightly to demonstrate the 'madness of crowds' (or people in general).

Dancing mania

An illustration of dancing mania (found here).

Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior by Hilary Evans, Robert E. Bartholomew, Anomalist Books (2009)

The universality of music: Cross-cultural comparison, the recognition of emotions, and the influence of the the Backstreet Boys on a Cockatoo

It has long been debated which aspects of music perception are universal and which are specific to a specific musical culture. A recent paper, "Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music" by T. Fritz, S. Jentschke, N. Gosselin, D. Sammler, I. Peretz, R. Turner, A. Friederici, S. Koelsch in Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 7, Pages 573-576 - freely available here) reports a cross-cultural study with participants from the Mafa tribe in Northern Cameroon and participants, each group being ignorant of the musical tradition of the other (here is an example of Mafa music). Results show that the Mafas recognized happy, sad, and scared/fearful Western music excerpts above chance, suggesting that the expression of these basic emotions in Western music can be recognized universally.



"The Mafa flutes consist of two functional components, a resonance body made out of forged iron and a mouthpiece crafted from a mixture of clay and wax. The flute is an open tube which is blown like a bottle, and has a small hole at its bottom end with which the degree to which the tube is opened or closed can be controlled. The depicted set of Mafa flutes is ‘‘refined'' with a rubber band."


The recognition of emotional expressions conveyed by the music of other cultures had been experimentally investigated only in three previous studies. These studies aimed at indentifying cues that transcend cultural boundaries, and the authors made an effort to include listeners with little prior exposure to the music presented (e.g., Westerners listening to Hindustani music).

Read more: The universality of music: Cross-cultural comparison, the recognition of emotions, and the...

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

Simian Oeconomicus II

In a recent post, I commented on the existence of markets of goods and services in monkeys' societies. Exactly as in human societies, supply and demand determine value of commodities exchanged among individuals. In an article entitled "Chimpanzees coordinate in a negotiation game" in the last issue of Evolution and Human Behavior (Volume 30, Issue 6, Pages 381-392, November 2009), Melis, Hare and Tomasello from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, complement this finding by showing that chimpanzees can negotiate conflicting interest regarding the division of the product of cooperation.

Abstract: A crucially important aspect of human cooperation is the ability to negotiate to cooperative outcomes when interests over resources conflict. Although chimpanzees and other social species may negotiate conflicting interests regarding travel direction or activity timing, very little is known about their ability to negotiate conflicting preferences over food. In the current study, we presented pairs of chimpanzees with a choice between two cooperative tasks-one with equal payoffs (e.g., 5-5) and one with unequal payoffs (higher and lower than in the equal option, e.g., 10-1). This created a conflict of interests between partners with failure to work together on the same cooperative task resulting in no payoff for either partner. The chimpanzee pairs cooperated successfully in as many as 78-94% of the trials across experiments. Even though dominant chimpanzees preferred the unequal option (as they would obtain the largest payoff), subordinate chimpanzees were able to get their way (the equal option) in 22-56% of trials across conditions. Various analyses showed that subjects were both strategic and also cognizant of the strategies used by their partners. These results demonstrate that one of our two closest primate relatives, the chimpanzee, can settle conflicts of interest over resources in mutually satisfying ways-even without the social norms of equity, planned strategies of reciprocity, and the complex communication characteristic of human negotiation.

Importantly, there are also big differences between humans and chimpanzees.

Read more: Simian Oeconomicus II

Elinor Ostrom: Nobel Prize in Anthropology!

I have never quite understood why there is a Nobel Prize just in economics. Why a prize basically on financial relationships? Why not a prize for the human sciences as whole instead? After all, there is a prize in biology, and no prize in marine biology, or a prize in physics and no prize in physics of condensed matters (what about a prize in "Peace in Middle-East" or "Literature in prose"? Anyway, it is not really a Nobel Prize). Be that as it may, if there had been a Prize just in anthropology rather than in just in economics, I would still have nominated Elinor Ostrom, (the 2009 Noble Prize in Economics).


First, Ostrom's work is both theoretically and empirically grounded. It is theoretically grounded because her enquiry started from the problem of collective action discovered by the rational choice theory. There are situations where everyone stands to benefit from the contribution of others and even more so if they do not contribute themselves (see Garrett Hardin's famous article on the tragedy of the commons in Science 13 December 1968: Vol. 162. no. 3859, pp. 1243 - 1248). Her work is also empirically grounded for Elinor Ostrom has started her work from the observation that, despite the apparent paradox, people do solve problems of collective actions. She has studied literally thousands of examples all over the world: Forests, fisheries, oil fields, grazing lands, irrigation systems, and so on. She came with a great book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Actionalt, that highlighted the important features of successful institutions (deliberation, punishment, cheater detection, etc.).

Her work is also of importance for a second reason. Today, issues of collective actions have become a central problem in evolutionary anthropology. There are supposed to present the greatest challenge to evolutionary theories of human cooperation. There are studied experimentally in public good games. Ostrom's work reminds us that humans do not need cooperative tendencies to solve tragedies of commons and build successful institutions. They only need to talk, to organize themselves, and to find the adequate solution for their particular problem. I am not saying (as in rational choice theory) that humans are selfish. Far from it. I do think that they are truly cooperative. I am only suggesting that public goods games, problems of collective action and large scale cooperation (villages, tribes, churches, etc.) may not need a general evolutionary solution to be explained and that evolutionary theories should focus rather on small scale cooperative interactions.

g Tum-mo heat meditation

Preparing for a lecture on homeostatic mechanisms, I came across a surprising phenomenon, g tum-mo heat meditation, that raises an interesting question about human enculturability. Homeostatic mechanisms are those that maintain our bodies (or our lives) in a state of balance between two (or potentially more) extremes that might be fatal. Insofar as some of our homeostatic mechanisms are controlled by the central nervous system and involve behavior, they fall within the purview of psychology, and I treat the body temperature, thirst, and hunger regulation cycles in my Introduction to Psychology class. The phenomenon that surprised me pertains to the first of these systems.


A Buddhist monk has his vital signs measured as he prepares to enter an advanced state of meditation in Normandy, France. During meditation, the monk's body is said to produce enough heat to dry cold, wet sheets put over his shoulders in a frigid room (Photo courtesy of Herbert Benson).


Body temperature regulation is quintessentially cognitive in nature. We have heat sensors distributed throughout our bodies. The heat sensors in the body's periphery-let's use the feet as an example-are a suite of neurons, each of which has a slightly different temperature at which it slows its activity. By detecting which neurons are normally active and which have slowed, the central nervous system can tell the temperature of the feet. The effectors for changing temperature are also located in the extremities: control of little hairs, blood vessel constriction, and shivering are all local. Despite the fact that both the detectors and effectors are local, the detectors do not communicate directly with the effectors: instead, they send their signals all the way up to a center in the brain, and then the brain sends the signal all the way back down to the effectors in the feet. It is cognitive in nature in that the whole thing is an information detection and communication system, and it is so automatic that it is often called a reflex.

Read more: g Tum-mo heat meditation

Experimental demonstration of cultural attitudes to punishment?

PNAS has just released an article on the variability of cultural attitudes to punishment. However, one may wonder if the experiment is really about punishment or cultural attitudes. Here is the abstract.

In a pairwise interaction, an individual who uses costly punishment must pay a cost in order that the opponent incurs a cost. It has been argued that individuals will behave more cooperatively if they know that their opponent has the option of using costly punishment. We examined this hypothesis by conducting two repeated two-player Prisoner's Dilemma experiments, that differed in their payoffs associated to cooperation, with university students from Beijing as participants. In these experiments, the level of cooperation either stayed the same or actually decreased when compared with the control experiments in which costly punishment was not an option. We argue that this result is likely due to differences in cultural attitudes to cooperation and punishment based on similar experiments with university students from Boston that found cooperation did increase with costly punishment.

The study replicates an earlier finding in which the results were pretty clear: The more you punish your partner the more likely you are to end up with nothing... As Gandhi was said to put it, "an eye for an eye will make the world go blind"...

Read more: Experimental demonstration of cultural attitudes to punishment?

Nick Enfield reviews Atran and Medin's The Native Mind and the Construction of Nature


(We have asked Nick Enfield to share with us and thus open to discussion his review of The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature by Scott Atran and Douglas Medin, [MIT Press, 2008] published in the TLS, September 18).

One success of twentieth century anthropology was to debunk the myth of primitive thought. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the sophisticated cognition of non-literate, ‘traditional' people than their knowledge and understanding of the biological world. Explorers and other intrepid travellers have known this for centuries, but it was in the 1950s that the wonder of indigenous peoples' knowledge of nature became a core interest of anthropological science. Harold Conklin's seminal Yale doctorate entitled ‘The relation of Hanunóo culture to the plant world' was based on extended fieldwork in the Philippines with a tribe of forest-dwelling traditional cultivators. Their knowledge of local plant life was not only vastly superior to the average modern European's, but their classification turned out to have significant similarities with what is known of biological taxonomy from modern science. A rich tradition of ethnobiological research on traditional cultures around the world has since discovered principles underlying some of humans' most fundamental cognitive capacities. Through this, we now know a good deal about how the human mind categorizes, organizes, and exploits large bodies of knowledge such as those encoded in biological taxonomy.

Why is the biological knowledge of traditional societies so remarkable to an educated westerner? The literature is littered with awestruck descriptions of the fieldworker's sense of wonder at what villagers know. Ask a traditional cultivator to name as many tree species as he can, and the list will go on and on and on, literally into the hundreds. And it is more than a mere list of names: he will also have a rich body of knowledge about the functions of different trees, and their ecological interrelations with other plants and animals. One might wonder how they do it, but the real question is: How is it that we can't do it? The average educated westerner knows as much about nature as a Hanunóo tribesman is likely to know about computer software. Atran and Medin's book opens with this unsettling fact. When the authors ask their US university students to name all the trees they know, these young people are at a loss. Here is the response of a Northwestern Honours student: Oak, pine, spruce, ... cherry ... (giggle) evergreen,... Christmas tree, is that a kind of tree? ... God what's the average here? Needless to say, it is not merely an inability to name the trees, but also to say anything sensible about their functions or ecological roles. Compare this to the richly annotated lists of up to 500 species readily elicited from members of the least technologically advanced and least formally educated small-scale traditional cultivator societies.

Read more: Nick Enfield reviews Atran and Medin's The Native Mind and the Construction of Nature

Gloria Origgi reviews Jon Elster's "Le désintéressement"

(Jon Elster has just published (in French) the first volume of a trilogy: Le désintéressement : Traité critique de l'homme économique Tome 1 (Paris, Le Seuil, 2009). We have asked Gloria Origgi to review it for us.)

In one of his perfect narratives, Heinrich Von Kleist tells the sad story of two secret lovers separated and condemned to death just before the earthquake that was to destroyelster
Santiago de Chile in 1647. Having miraculously survived, they enjoy for a few days the mercy of an enchanted social atmosphere. Their judges and executioners, transformed by the tragedy and the ensuing chaos, multiply gestures of altruism and generosity. The blissful mood persists for a short while, but soon the rules and norms of civil life are being reinstated and a Mass is celebrated during which the crime of the two poor lovers is denounced as the cause of all the evil. The lovers, unable to escape the fury of collective condemnation, are clubbed to death. The reciprocal altruism and the disinterested society that the cataclysm had spawned turns out to be ephemeral, unnatural, as if the ferocious end were a way to compensate for the uncanny sense of self that the people had experienced when acting in such a disinterested manner.

Jon Elster's latest book (Le désintéressement, Paris, Seuil, 2009, 377 pp.), based on his Collège de France lectures in 2006-2007, discusses the very possibility of disinterested action. Is it possible for a human being to act in a truly disinterested manner? Do disinterested actions have a psychological unity or are they the mere product of circumstances? Is disinterestedness an individual or a collective phenomenon?

Read more: Gloria Origgi reviews Jon Elster's "Le désintéressement"

The Chameleon effect in Capuchin Monkeys

Imitation, as you probably know, has received considerable attention during the past 20 years or so because it was first argued that it was a uniquely human psychological mechanism that could partly explain the development of human material culture (see Whiten et al. 2004 for a review with historical perspective). In this long debate, imitation has come to acquire a technical definition: that of learning by observation a novel mean to reach a particular goal. While the discussion of whether non-human animals are able to imitate in this sense is still going on, a recent study by Annika Paukner, Stephen J. Suomi, Elisabetta Visalberghi and Pier F. Ferrari has challenged the human uniqueness of yet another form of imitation: the chameleon effect.

As its name indicate, the chameleon effect (dubbed after the Woody Allen movie Zelig, see movie below) refers to the "nonconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, facial expressions, and other behaviors of one's interaction partners, such that one's behavior passively and unintentionally changes to match that of others in one's current social environment."(Chartrand & Bargh 1999) The chameleon effect is known to influence the social relationship between people: to smoothen relations, increase likeliness between individuals and increase empathic dispositions. But is the chameleon effect the consequence of a species typical disposition linked to our unique communicative abilities for instance, or is it shared with our close relatives and therefore linked to more general aspect of social behaviours?

Beginning of Woody Allen's Zelig movie.


Read more: The Chameleon effect in Capuchin Monkeys

The compromise effect or, cross-cultural psychology is messy

Among the many ‘irrational' effects unearthed by decision making researchers, one has been the focus of a relative wealth of cross-cultural work: the compromise effect. Strictly speaking, the compromise effect stems for an unwarranted shift towards an option when it becomes a compromise option. Imagine you have a choice between two computers that differ significantly only on two attributes:

Computer A. RAM: 3 GB; Hard Drive: 100 GB

Computer B. RAM: 2 GB; Hard Drive: 200 GB

Now imagine that a third computer is added:

Computer C. RAM: 1 GB; Hard Drive: 300 GB

It has been observed that people tend to choose computer B more often when computer C is added (Simonson, 1989). The explanation is that computer B becomes the compromise option, and that choosing the compromise option can be favored for at least two reasons: it might be easier to justify and it might be less likely to be criticized.



Does McCain look like a better candidate in the bottom picture?

One could then formulate a rather straightforward prediction regarding cross-cultural differences. It has been surmised that Easterners show a general preference for options that will not offend anyone and that will preserve social harmony, options that form a "middle-way" (Peng & Nisbett, 1999). Easterners should then favor compromise options,

Read more: The compromise effect or, cross-cultural psychology is messy

The quest for Jesus

One of my interests is the history of Christianity, particularly the first few centuries, when there were some interesting varieties of the religion—my religion—quite unlike anything we see today, or will probably ever see again. Figuring out what exactly happened back then is no easy task: scholars often make much of the tiniest shreds of verbal evidence and there is, unsurprisingly, a lot of guess work involved.

It is partly as a result of this that Christianity’s earliest period has become something of a Rorschach test, the evidence being sufficiently limited and ambiguous that scholarly “reconstructions” have often been three parts agenda-of-the-historian to one part evidence. Nowhere has this situation been worse than in the quest for the historical Jesus, the attempt to discern, behind Christian lore, what the historical Jesus of Nazareth actually said and did. So great is the rhetorical power of appeals to Jesus that all manner of philosophical and theological agendas have attempted to co-opt him for their causes, sometimes quite baldly. Sometimes this has involved reinterpreting Jesus as a kind of ideal, as in Rudolf Bultmann’s model of Jesus as an existential philosopher, but more often it has taken the form of dismissing Jesus as nothing more than whatever the “historian” thought would be most scandalous for Christian orthodoxy: Morton Smith thought that making Jesus a gay magician would do the trick best.

In recent years some sanity has returned to these discussions, most notably, in my opinion, in John Meier’s closely argued A marginal Jew (Yale Anchor Bible Reference Library). One of the things that Meier understands properly, and that sets his work apart from so much earlier work, is that much of what the historical Jesus said and did, while presumably relevant in his time, is irrelevant to the modern Christian believer (and similarly to the modern critic of Christianity). Meier summarizes it well in his discussion of Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Meier, IV:75):

Here we run up against the uncomfortable truth that must be faced again and again by any honest quester for the historical Jesus: relevance is the enemy of history. By this I mean that facile relevance, a rush to “What does this mean for us today?”—as though that were the only standard of truth—often hampers or distorts sober attempts to understand the past as past. To respect the past as past, as something different from our present, means to refuse to twist its arm until it yields up a desired lesson or norm for the present.

Meier (along with most other scholars at present) interprets the historical Jesus as a Jew engaged in the religious arguments of his day, and is able to shed light on some of the otherwise enigmatic statements found in the canonical Christian accounts of Jesus’ life.

Read more: The quest for Jesus

Pierre Jacob reviews 'Mothers and Others', by Sarah B. Hrdy

Review of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others, the Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.
Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press (422 p.)



Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of California-Davis, has just published a wonderful essay in evolutionary psychology, entitled Mothers and Others, the Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Her basic question is: what accounts for the unique human capacity to read other minds? Her basic answer is that humans are cooperative breeders, which means both that human infants have evolved a unique ability to engage grown ups into caring for them and also that human adults are wired in for extensive shared care and the provisioning of offspring by so-called “alloparents” (i.e. non-biological parents). The interplay between infants’ commitment to enlist caretakers and adults’ willingness to serve as caretakers is the evolutionary basis of the human ability for mindreading. The book is an impressive and sustained argument for why, unlike other apes, humans are cooperative breeders, based on evidence from genetics, endocrinology, the paleontology of fossil record, primatology, comparative and developmental psychology, anthropological research among extant hunter-gatherer societies, history and even sociology. In the process, she debunks a number of assumptions prevalent in either anthropology (e.g. the prevalence of patrilocal residence patterns and the organizing role of patrilineal inheritance in human gathering-and-hunting societies) or in evolutionary theorizing (e.g. the Hunting pact or Sex contract).

While human infants uniquely compete among one another for being cared for, human adults are uniquely wired for sharing both food and the care of offspring. Not only is food sharing virtually inexistent among Great Apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas), but also the exclusive reliance on maternal care among other apes is non-negotiable: separation from its mother almost inevitably leads to the infant’s death. Trust in others’ benevolence is a unique feature of human cognition: a human mother would never engage in cooperative breeding and shared care of her offspring unless she trusted members of her group. As Hrdy emphasizes, young mothers’ inexperience and incompetence are important causes of infants’ deaths among primates. Hence, there is competition among potential young caretakers for holding newborns. Cooperative breeding helps explain the following puzzle: on the one hand, human infants are more helpless, take longer to mature, are larger and more costly to feed, than infants of other apes. On the other hand, human hunter-gatherer mothers reproduce almost twice as fast (every 3 to 4 years on average) as other apes (every 6 to 8 years on average) (p. 102). Shared care and provisioning of offspring critically helps support the high rate of human reproduction compared to that of other apes. In hunter-gatherer societies, shared care enables the mother both to gather food for herself and her progeny and to benefit from food gathered by members of her group.

In chapter 3, Hrdy’s shared care hypothesis leads her to a friendly critical assessment of the emphasis by classical attachment theorists on the mother’s continuous and exclusive care of, and contact with, her offspring.

Read more: Pierre Jacob reviews 'Mothers and Others', by Sarah B. Hrdy

Japanese smileys vs. Ekman faces

Some medias and the blogosphere (see here, here and here) are celebrating a new study published in Current Biology, allegedly showing that recognition of facial expressions is not universal. Psychological universalists and relativists never seem to get tired of chewing that old bone of contention.

There are two aspects to the study. The first is a very nice exploration (by means of eye-tracking) of the way Asians process facial expressions, replicating the earlier work of Masaki Yuki and colleagues three years ago (read what Karim wrote of it at the time). Japanese subjects tend to focus on the eyes instead of the mouth to decode emotions - as one could have guessed from looking at Japanese Smiley faces :        (^_^)     for 'happy',       (T_T)        for 'sad', and other such          (*_*)       ...

Yet the authors don't stop at that fascinating result, and go on to try and prove another point : that because of this difference in face-processing style, East Asian subjects and 'Caucasian' subjects are not equally good at recognizing some of Paul Ekman's supposedly universal facial displays of emotions, like disgust and fear. And indeed East Asian subjects are significantly likelier than Caucasians to misinterpret happy or fearful faces.

As Neuroskeptic points out in his excellent coverage of the experiment, the difference, though, is really tiny...

Read more: Japanese smileys vs. Ekman faces

How cultural is cultural epidemiology? 2- Cultural embedding

This is the second part of Christophe's series of posts on what culture does to culture (the first post is here).

Most cultural phenomena are embedded in other cultural phenomena. For one thing, any cultural phenomenon takes place within a community that already has many traditions, cultural practices, rituals and beliefs of its own. The important point, however, is that the embedding cultural phenomena are likely to have some effects on the embedded cultural phenomenon and to partially determine its evolution and the content of its constitutive representations.  Religious beliefs can have effects on economic practices; economic practices can have effects on kinship relations; etc.

Let us call “cultural embedding” this aspect of cultural evolution.  Cultural embedding is certainly what motivated some cultural anthropologists to have a holistic view of culture: every aspect of one culture will be related, more or less directly, to other aspects of the same culture.

Cultural epidemiology on promiscuous causality

For cultural epidemiology, cultural phenomena result from social cognitive causal chains that go from mental processes to social interactions (e.g. communication, imitation, the production of artefacts) to mental processes again. Some of these chains involve many members of a community, last through time and eventually have the effect of stabilising the distribution of cultural items in that community.

Read more: How cultural is cultural epidemiology? 2- Cultural embedding

How much of a difference does culture make ?

In my latest post, I mentioned a very nice study that looked at differences in face-processing between East Asians and Westerners. Though it made a couple of fascinating points, the study also claimed that Asian culture strongly hindered Asians from understanding Western emotions. In fact, their statistically significant result was much too weak to warrant that conclusion. A recent pamphlet has been looking, among other things, at what makes scientists confound the statistical significance of an effect with its importance. The debate over the significance of significance has precedents in cross-cultural psychology.

I just finished Stephen Ziliak and Deirdre McCloskey's vital pamphlet, The cult of statistical significance: how the standard error is costing us jobs, justice, and lives. These two economic historians did an excellent job of convincing me that everyone in the human sciences (medicine included) should heed their advice and read the book. It's quite a nice read, too - except when the authors let the gossip and the anecdotes run loose, which makes you feel like you're squeezed at a conference buffet between two economy professors talking shop and lambasting some unknown colleague. Anyway, the book's message, old and banal as it can be in certain circles, is a crucial one.

Ziliak and McCloskey

It is about null-hypothesis significance testing. Before you stop reading, please remember that it is the tool you use in order to prove reviewers that your data are worth publishing. It is the mandatory p < 0.05 threshold over which there is no publishable truth. It has become the de facto golden standard of scientific validity.

This kind of significance testing has been under attack for many years in various fields, including psychology.

Read more: How much of a difference does culture make ?

Meaning in sounds?

Disclaimer: I'm venturing far, far, from my domain of expertise, supposing I even have such a thing. I know nothing about psycholinguistics (i.e., I need to be reminded on a regular basis about the difference between a phoneme and a morpheme). Please feel free to point out the inevitable inaccuracies in what follows.

Random chance had me dig up a really nice experiment published by Dan Slobin in 1968. Slobin went to look for evidence of cross-cultural "phonemic symbolism". Phonemic symbolism is the idea that the pairing of meanings with sounds is not completely arbitrary. In some cases that is fairly obvious, as in the case of onomatopea, where the sound of the word echoes the type of sound it designates: the words "bang" or a "boom" for example. There are also cases of near-onomatopea, such as the verbs "to grunt" or "to grumble". But what of less obvious cases? Is there anything that makes "low" and "high", or "smooth" and "sharp" good words for the concepts they designate, simply from what they sound like?


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Linguistic Epidemiology – Part 1, Units of analysis

In his insightful post ‘Is language a replicator?’ (June 1, 2009), Nicolas Claidière usefully critiques a recent review article by Mark Pagel on evolutionary approaches to language change (Nature Reviews Genetics Vol. 10, June 2009). Pagel’s paper (and Nicolas’s critique) raises a range of issues, but here I only want to emphasise a really important point that Nicolas makes, namely that Pagel – and pretty much everyone involved in the kind of work he reviews, I might add – is often vague or ambiguous as to the unit of analysis in language change. Are we talking about the historical evolution of elements of languages such as words? Or whole languages at the historical community level? Or languages as integrated systems in individuals’ minds? I recently addressed this issue in an article ‘Transmission Biases in Linguistic Epidemiology’ in the online Journal of Language Contact (THEMA 2 2008:299-310; freely accessible at: http://www.jlcjournal.org/). The problem Nicolas identifies is laid out in section 3 of the paper, as follows (feel free to replace the term ‘variant’ with element, item, character, or equivalent, as you prefer):

The units of transmission: variants, not languages

There is no type of single event through which ‘a language’ as an entire structured system is socially transmitted. It is only through exposure to fragments of language, one chunk at a time, that we are able to build descriptions of whole language systems, either in learning languages (e.g., as children or as second-language learners) or in documenting them (e.g., as grammarians).

Read more: Linguistic Epidemiology – Part 1, Units of analysis

Scylla and Charybdis

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 fifth and final post in the series: interested readers may find the rest of the posts here.

In this post I would like to step back from an examination of the micro-processes of interpretation and consider instead the broad, long-term dynamics of interpretive traditions. I have suggested that interpretive traditions face a fundamental dilemma: in order to maintain a coherent social organization, there must be some limit on permissible interpretations; but too tight a limit on permissible interpretations results in stagnation, boredom, and irrelevance. The historical trajectory of interpretive traditions is thus akin to Odysseus’ path between Scylla and Charybdis, Scylla representing the chaos that results from unconstrained production and consumption of representations and Charybdis representing the collapse of an organization when it has become so fixed that people lose interest. If one wishes to put it in information-theoretic terms: too much freedom of interpretation is the equivalent of a chaotic system, in which knowing one interpretation offers no value for understanding others; too little freedom of interpretation is the equivalent of a system with an extremely low information content.

In broad strokes, this dynamic may be seen in the evolution of Protestantism. The Anabaptists took the principle of sola scriptura—the idea that the Bible alone is authoritative—to its logical conclusion, and their communities underwent near constant schism in part because of the resulting interpretive chaos. Lutherans and Calvinists achieved relatively more stable communities in part by regarding the interpretations of particular individuals as authoritative, and thus constraining the interpretive freedom within their communities.

Another, and I think more common, way of striking this balance is to fix the representations that are regarded as formal doctrine or the text that is regarded as scripture, but to maintain flexibility in the ways in which the relevance of those doctrines or that scripture is established. Thus, in the church I studied ethnographically, the text of the Bible was mainly regarded as a fixed entity, but the application of the scriptural text was a site of constant innovation.

Institutions need both fixed representations and novel representations to remain organized and retain people’s attention. Interpretive traditions, where the interpretand is fixed, face a special challenge in this regard. That they are able to resolve it successfully, most of the time, is a testament to the immense skill of our species as information managers.

Murder in Saint Andrews

Last week I was enjoying a very pleasant evening in St Andrews. The sky was clear, the last rays of sun were warming the beach, the sound of the sea was pleasanty resting my exhausted mind. On my way back from the beach I crossed a small car park and while I was peacefully enjoying this last moment of tranquility before returning to the center of the city, my visual detection module got activated by an unusual object. Automatically, and whithout my conscious awareness and consent, my attention got focused on an unexpected thing. Rapidly a close look at it revealed that I was examining the remains of a dead body. As this thought occured to me, my sherlock holmes module spring into action... who was he/she? why did he/she died here? what was the cause of the death?

To make this more concrete, I shot a picture of the crime scene.

Read more: Murder in Saint Andrews

How cultural is cultural epidemiology? The case of enculturation

When discussing about cultural epidemiology with informed colleagues, I often come to think that they tend to underplay the extent to which cultural epidemiological accounts can integrate enculturation and other cultural phenomena that are generative of culture.

Here is a key claim of cultural epidemiology: understanding, learning and memorising what others communicate or transmit are micro-cognitive processes at the basis of cultural phenomena, and these cognitive processes are strongly constrained by the properties of the mind. Cultural epidemiologists have especially worked on specifying the consequences of universal properties of the mind for culture: naive theories and the memorisation of religious beliefs for instance; or face recognition and the success of masks as cultural artefacts. However, what is understood, learned and memorised is also dependent on those properties of the mind caused by previous enculturation. This is nearly a truism: one can learn better to read if one already knows the alphabet, one processes differently a sentence in French if one knows the language that if one does not, and, more controversially, and can more easily learn how to build a canoe, if one already knows what each part is made for. True, most of the time these things are learned in concert - but transmitted information is nonetheless processed sequentially, and the order of the elements in the sequence is sure to matter.

This has at least the following consequences:

Read more: How cultural is cultural epidemiology? The case of enculturation

A role for dyslexia in language evolution?

In a new paper Gabrieli highlight the recent results of cognitive neuroscience research on dyslexia and its potentdiial consequences for the treatment of dyslexic children through educative measures.

What Gabrieli show is that dyslexia, an impairement in reading abilities linked to difficulties in phonological processing, can be detected very early on by brain imaging techniques and treated in some cases with specific training in reading during the beginning of learning. If left undetected and untreated, dyslexia can cause prolonged difficulties in reading abilities and decrease motivation to read.

Dyslexia and its orthographic consequences could be of great interest for cognition-and-culture oriented scientists because orthographic errors generated by dyslexia or other processes produce linguistic variation at the origin of language evolution.

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Simian Oeconomicus

Economics is usually thought of as a specifically human science. However, there are no reasons to restrict its application to humans. After all, animals have goals and preferences exactly like humans. And exactly like humans, they face the sad reality that resources are scarse (be it sex, power or food). These basic observations plead in favour of more integration between economics and ecology. This is exactly what Ronald Noe (with Peter Hammerstein) has advocated for many years by promoting the idea of market in biology. In a forthcoming issue of PNAS, Cécile Fruteau, Bernhard Voelkl, Eric van Damme, and Ronald Noe¨ offer an empirical demonstration of the existence of market among primate societies. They show that "Supply and demand determine the market value of food providers in wild vervet monkeys" (the full article is freely available here).

Previous studies showed that primates pay more when commodities become scarcer: subordinates groomed dominants longer before being tolerated at food sites in periods of shortage; females groomed mothers longer before obtaining permission to handle their infants when there were fewer newborns and males groomed fertile females longer before obtaining their compliance when fewer such females were present.

Freteau et al. have demonstrated experimentally how supply and demand determine the value of food providers:

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The Evolution of God?


Robert Wright has written a new book, much in the tradition of his previous, and famous, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destinyalt : The Evolution of Godalt . His main goal is to argue that as religious creeds change though time, they tend to be increasingly inclusive in their moral scope, either that the circle of believer expands or that a greater number of people are deemed worthy of the same moral rules than that used towards other believers. In Non-Zero, Wright was already making a similar, but more general (and maybe more convincing), claim that humans have found more and more ways to interact with their neighbors in a mutually beneficial fashion (non-zero sum games), something that will play an important role in the expansion of the moral circle.

Despite his universalistic claims Wright mostly draws from the history of the Abrahamic religions. After a few chapters devoted to the religions of hunter-gatherers and chiefdoms, he focuses on the classical historical sequence: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There barely is a word, here or there, about Confucianism, Buddhism or even Hinduism. This therefore begs the question of the generalizability of any trend he might have convincingly argued for based on the religions of the Book. This might be even more problematic because he ties in (although this may not be explicit) the evolution towards greater moral inclusiveness with the evolution of monotheism. It would then be easy to draw the conclusion that religions that did not go all the way towards monotheism are somewhat less advanced morally (again, he might very well be reluctant to draw such a conclusion, I am merely pointing out that it is tempting to draw it from his mode of exposition).

Even more problematic is his argument that this religious march towards greater moral inclusiveness can be taken as evidence for the presence of an actual God, or at least some kind of higher purpose.

Read more: The Evolution of God?

Why you should rank your friends (but not tell them)

Like me, you must sometimes receive these « rank your friends » messages through your social network. It starts by saying how high you have been ranked in someone’s best friends list, and thereby invites you to return the compliment. It seems like crude ranking and mere reciprocity. But notice, it is limited to the positive side. Be itby conflict-avoidance or some electronic politeness, you are not informed that you are Paola’s 74th best friend, nor that Peter really thinks that George is a much better friend than you.

Raffaello: Self-Portrait with friend (Musée du Louvre)

Recent research by Peter DeScioli and Robert Kurzban (download the paper here), from University of Pennsylvania, tests and confirms these tendencies, while trying to make sense of them. Participants in the experiments are asked to rank their closest friends in a number of ways. These « friendship rankings » turn out to be most strongly correlated with individuals' own perceived rank among their partners' other friends, more than for example, the benefits they receive from the friendship, the number of secrets shared or how long the friendship has been ongoing. I have a strong interest in ranking practices, but what this mostly illuminates is what friendship means.

Read more: Why you should rank your friends (but not tell them)

In praise of neuroscience (for once)

Here, at ICCI, we are used to being skeptical about the contributions of neurosciences to the understanding of culture (see the posts on reading and religion, or Mixing Memories's post on colour categorisation). Indeed, very often, neuroscientific studies of cultural phenomena do not do more than replicating psychological experiments and showing that cultural phenomena involve the brain (in case you were thinking that people use their stomach to think of the novel they are reading, now you have good evidences that actually they use their brain...).

This skepticism does not mean that the neurosciences are irrelevant for anthropology. Far from it.

For instance, people find it doubtful that culture could be shaped by innate cognitive dispositions. They notice that cultural objects such as mathematics or writing systems are recent, variable, and acquired by learning. No selective pressure could have shaped the human brain to facilitate reading or high-level mathematics. From this valid premise, several authors have jumped to the conclusion that the cultural competence of the human species must have arisen from the novel emergence of a vastly flexible domain-general learning capacity. This hypothesis, indeed, lies at the heart of the ‘‘standard social sciences model'' (Tooby and Cosmides 1992) or the "blank slate model" (Pinker, 2002). Homo sapiens would therefore no longer owe its main dispositions to its biological architecture. Thanks to its plasticity, the human brain, more than that of any other animal species, would be capable of absorbing essentially any form of culture. It would be meaningless to investigate the cognitive constraints on culture.

However, parts of the human cortex are specialized for some cultural domains such as reading and arithmetic. Representations of letter strings and of numbers occupy reproducible locations within large-scale macromaps, respectively in the left occipito-temporal and bilateral intraparietal cortex. Furthermore, recent fMRI studies reveal a systematic architecture within these areas. Take the case of reading.

Read more: In praise of neuroscience (for once)

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