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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.

How to bother a pigeon

My study at home overlooks a small garden and I have been making some very informal and un-Darwin-like observations of the behaviour of birds that have got me thinking about how minor harms are cognized by non-human animals.

Let me give an illustration of the kind of behaviour I am thinking of. At the bottom of the garden is a large tree. Among the species that occasionally rest on their branches are wood pigeons (similar the common city pigeon, but displaying fewer deformities thanks to a diet that does not entirely consist of cigarette ends). I talk about pigeons not because they are interesting in some relevant respect, but simply because they are fairly heavy birds. The relevance of this fact will become apparent soon.

I have repeatedly observed the following behaviour. One individual, 'A' in the (rather crude - sorry) picture below, is resting on a branch.


After a while, another individual, 'B', lands on the same branch but further away from the trunk. I don't know whether pigeons' folk physics include principles of leverage, but what inevitably happens is that upon B's landing the branch flexes and A loses balance and starts wildly flapping its wings in an attempt to regain it. Pigeon B does not appear to have chosen the branch in order to interact with A. On no occasion have I seen A expressing its displeasure to B through aggressive displays, although I am no expert in this field and may be missing important behavioural cues; for argument's sake, let us assume that A does not remonstrate.

My question is: what does A make of B's behaviour?

Read more: How to bother a pigeon

Anthropology in crisis - what, still?

Fifteen years ago, Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart declared that "anthropology has been in crisis for as long as anyone can remember" (here). Has anything really changed? Today, anthropology remains a discipline riddled with rival paradigms, ferocious disputes, and fleeting fashions. Few basic principles of theory and method are agreed upon and even the general nature of anthropological knowledge is continually being contested. Cumulative theory building is rare and difficult to sustain. Why?

Perhaps part of the answer is that humans are not naturally adept at reasoning about complex social morphology. As our societies have grown in size and complexity, we have witnessed the emergence of a vast plethora of specialized offices and corporate groups based on a broad range of sorting principles: kinship, descent, rank, caste, ethnicity, nationality, and so on. Categories of office, coalition, and class are no more than idealized models of how the social world is organized, rather than precise descriptions of how it operates on the ground but they provide robust schemas for individual behaviour, cumulatively instantiating patterns that people reciprocally interpret in terms of those schemas. These schemas, however, are a relatively modern and potentially dispensable accretion to human thinking, too recent in our evolutionary history to have led to specialized cognitive skills for reasoning about social complexity. The same could not be said of human reasoning in many other domains.

As part of our evolutionary endowment, we possess dedicated intuitive machinery for reasoning about physical properties (such as solidity and gravity), biological properties (such as essentialized differences between natural kinds), and psychological properties (such as a capacity to empathize with suffering). Our intuitive physics, intuitive biology, and intuitive psychology may have to be substantially revised in light of the discoveries ofscientific physics/ biology/ psychology but our intuitions often also deliver useful reference points and pedagogic tools. For instance, while our intuitions about the discreteness and stability of natural kind taxonomies are inconsistent with the diachronic character of evolutionary processes, nevertheless they provide a convenient on-the-hoof framework within which to conceptualize speciation.

Problems arise, however, when some of our intuitively grounded ontological commitments also serve as markers of identity.

Read more: Anthropology in crisis - what, still?


Some of the most enduring kinds of cultural traditions have been interpretive in nature.  My research has focused on the interaction of cognition and culture surrounding the Christian Bible, but in this series I am explore a broader general model of interpretive traditions.  This is the fourth post in the series: interested readers may find the rest of the posts in "Brian's blog."

Recently I have been reading about Shaolin traditions of kungfu, chigung, and meditation, and I have repeatedly encountered the claim that Buddhist meditators centuries ago intuited the structure of the universe as it has been revealed by modern cosmology and quantum mechanics.  These sorts of claims are not uncommon in scriptural traditions, and it is easy to find similar Muslim or Christian claims that their scriptures anticipated modern scientific discoveries and technological achievements.  Of course, such claims are plausible principally to people who already subscribe to tradition, and outsiders looking at the same text are seldom impressed.

There are a couple of different processes involved in this phenomenon, but the critical one for my present purpose is the attribution of a representation to an interpretand, in this case, a religious text.

As I define it, an interpretation is a mental representation of the form [interpretand] says/means/teaches [interpretive representation].  This relationship says/means/teaches I call attribution, because it involves the attribution of a concept or statement or impression to the interpretand.  (My use of interpretation is unusual in that it includes the attribution as part of an interpretation along with the interpretive representation.)  In this post I will attempt to circumscribe and, to some degree, characterize the relationship of attribution, and to point out what I think is significant about it.

Read more: Attribution

Cross-cultural differences in argumentation

Richard Nisbett and his collaborators have carried out an extensive program of experimental cross-cultural psychology, mostly aimed at establishing differences between the ways of thinking of Easterners and Westerners. Some of the differences they have studied pertain to the domain of argumentation: Easterners are supposed not to be really bothered by contradiction (making arguing tricky) and to frown upon the debates and discussions that threaten social harmony. These claims are based partly on a survey of the anthropological, sociological and historical literature, partly on some experimental results. I have attempted to reinterpret some of these data in order to show that the situation is somewhat more complicated than could be thought at first (for more detail, see my submitted paper). Recent scholarship shows that the ancient Chinese were in fact skilled arguers, and that debates and dissension were rife during both Chinese and Japanese history. The experimental data is also open to weaker reinterpretations, highlighting the commonalities between Eastern and Western style of thoughts, as well as the extreme context-dependency of cognitive mechanisms.

alt alt

Han Fei, the Chinese Cicero                       Cicero, the Roman Han Fei

Read more: Cross-cultural differences in argumentation

Is language a replicator?

In a recent review Mark Pagel argues that language is a culturally transmitted replicator (Pagel, 2009).

Pagel starts by offering a useful update on phylogenetic methods and then uses a comparison between genetics and language phylogenetic trees to reveal similarities between cultural and biological evolution. He argues that borrowing and corruption, which could in principle be very important in the case of languages and make phylogenetic reconstruction difficult if not impossible, are, in fact, very limited. Pagel notes: "If languages are not the ‘closed shop’ to outside influences that we have come to expect of eukaryotic organisms with sequestered germ lines, the strength of descent with modification in language trees shows that the cultural processes of language teaching and learning that transmit language from one generation to the next can have a surprisingly high fidelity and can show resistance to outside effects." To put it briefly, phylogenetic trees show, or so it is claimed, that languages are faithfully reproduced from one generation to the next.


Figure 1: The phylogenetic tree of Indo-European languages, based on the Swadesh list of 200 words.


Read more: Is language a replicator?

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?

Cultural Attraction among birds

If we could rewind the tape of cultural history and play it again, would it look like it does today ? Well, this is exactly what Olga Feher and collaborators at the Ofer Tchernichovski lab have tried to find out about zebra finches songs. Their Nature article shows the results of two ingenious series of experiments in cultural transmission. Their work nicely illustrates the phenomenon of attraction in social learning dynamics- a phenomenon that may have more weight in the animal cultures than has been recognized until now. They also provide a rather precise quantification procedure for the study of a multigenerational cultural trait (song learning) under a controlled setting- certainly something that until now you can afford more easily with zebra finches than with human subjects.

Read more: Cultural Attraction among birds

The Art Instinct : Denis Dutton replies to Roberto Casati

(Editor's note) Denis Dutton is kind enough to reply at length to Roberto Casati's skeptical review of his book, The Art Instinct. The review has sparked a heated debate between Duttonites and Casatites on this blog.

Like most authors, I appreciate any thoughtful analysis of my work, and for me that includes Roberto Casati’s review of my book. I won’t take up all Casati’s provocative points, but just a few, and not in the order he presents them.


At the close of his remarks, Casati says that my “intimidating name-dropping occasionally gets tiresome – "the Iliad, the Cathedral at Chartres, Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine, Breughel's Hunters in the Snow, Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji" etc. The list he refers to here is in the book’s introduction, where I am describing my intention in the last chapter to discuss the what I take to be Clive Bell’s “cold white peaks of art,” the summits of artistic achievement. The list is therefore to give the reader examples of the what I regard as greatest art in history. It does not, as Casati claims, “go on and on,” but has four further items: Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Schubert’s Winterreise, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Beethoven’s Sonata op. 111.

Where is the intimidation here? Most people are taught about the Iliad, or will have seen a movie based on it, will often know “Tintern Abbey,” if they have studied English poetry, will have seen that Breughel painting, will know something about Chartres, and will have seen “The Wave,” the most famous of all Japanese woodcuts, even if they don’t know that it forms part of Hokusai’s series. Yes, maybe Winterreise is a bit obscure, and a lot of people don’t know the Opus 111. I’m not sure about the Leonardo choice; I was avoiding the Mona Lisa, a great painting but also, alas, a cliché. Again: that list is intended to denote examples of the highest of high art, and yet be familiar enough that most readers will recognize a couple of items on it.

Casati continues: “If I want to learn something about the arts, I need to know what is it that makes Schubert's Winterreise a masterpiece, and it is not by enlisting it along other masterpieces and adding that “their nobility and grandeur ... flow from their ability to address deep human instincts” that we'll make progress in understanding.” But that is what is discussed in the last chapter, as promised in the introduction. And by the way, I stand by the phrase “nobility and grandeur.” If anyone finds such notions corny, or Victorian, or embarrassing, so be it.

Intimidation? Excuse me, but that is something that art theorists, especially those of a poststructuralist stripe, have been inflicting on readers for the last forty years or more – talking down to their audiences with obscure jargon and esoteric references.

Read more: The Art Instinct : Denis Dutton replies to Roberto Casati

Cumulative culture in the lab and chimpanzees

At the recent EHBEA conference held April 6-8 at Saint Andrews, I saw presentations by both Andrew Whiten (a primatologist who specializes on nonhuman cultural traditions, especially in chimpanzees) and Christine Caldwell (who examines cumulative cultural evolution in the lab). It was interesting to see the question of cumulative cultural evolution from these two very diverging perspectives.

It is now generally established that nonhuman animals, including chimpanzees, macaques and a variety of bird species, display a socially transmitted behaviors, which in humans are termed cultures. However, to date the evidence for cumulative cultural evolution in nonhumans remains sporadic. For example, in the case of nut-cracking chimpanzees in the Taï forest, there is little variation in how nuts are being processed, i.e., cracked by means of a hammer and anvil, and whereas some individuals have learned to use auxilliary stones to stabilize the anvil, this innovation has not spread to the entire population. The question is: why not?

a typical use of anvil to crack a nut from a Taï forest chimpanzee

Andrew Whiten recently co-authored a study in which chimpanzees were confronted with an optimal and cumulatively built technique for extracting honey from an artificial device. Whereas the individuals learned the simple 'dipping' technique with ease, they did not master the more complex 'probing' technique, which built on elements of the dipping technique they already mastered. The chimpanzees thus got 'stuck' at a simple but suboptimal technique, although control tests showed that the more difficult technique was not beyond their cognitive capacities. Why would this be? Whiten tentatively suggested in the paper that chimpanzees may be 'conservative', unwilling to try a new technique if the one they already knew was good enough.

Another line of reasoning, which has garnered much attention, is that of Tomasello.

Read more: Cumulative culture in the lab and chimpanzees

The interpretive process

This is the third installment of a series of posts on a cognitive approach to interpretive traditions (Part One - Part Two).

One of the things people do with texts is read them. This is certainly not the only thing people do with texts, nor, I would argue, is it the primary thing people do with texts, but it is one of the more fundamental things, and even when texts are used for other purposes-such as when one saves a cash register receipt in case one might need to return a purchased item-these other actions are carried out with an eye to the possibility, at least, of someone reading the text.

Scholarly approaches to the reading and interpretation of texts tend to fall into one of two broad tendencies. The first is the classic model of literary interpretation wherein the reader uses clues from the text to form ideas about what the text says. This model of reading tends to envision the single reader in isolation with the text and to focus on the features of the text that guide-well, should guide-the reader to the author's intended interpretation. This model tends to be highly normative, and I do not think was ever really intended to be a description of how people actually read.

The reaction to the classical model was a whole variety of reader-response theories that emphasize the active role of the reader in creating meaning. In some of these theories the text is almost entirely incidental. The anthropological versions of these theories have tended to emphasize discourse around texts, and to see reading as just a variety of social interaction. In these theories the text does nothing more than provide an occasion for interpretation, and the structure of the text is seldom discussed at all.

I've never been comfortable with either approach.

Read more: The interpretive process

Cross-cultural variation in creationism

There is substantial cultural variation in the prevalence of creationism, i.e., the view that the Bible (or other religious writings) provides a historically accurate account of how living things came into being. In some countries, like Iceland or Japan, the view that species arose through a gradual process that is characterized by random variation, selective retention and modification through descent, is almost universally accepted. By contrast, and to the chagrin of scientists and philosophers of science in the USA, only 40 - 50 % of US citizens accept evolutionary theory. In this respect, the USA only does slightly better than Turkey, which ranks lowest on the list of Miller et al.'s study in Science (2006, vol. 313). Where does this variability come from?

Read more: Cross-cultural variation in creationism

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.

Book review : The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton.

(Editor's note) It would be difficult not to notice the buzz around Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct, (see Nigel Warburton's review, Michael O'Donnell's, and Brian Morton's - and even the Colbert Report). It's always a pleasure to see an accessible and much advertised book written in a naturalistic perspective reach the many. However, it's in the nature of such books to stir controversy. We have asked philosopher Roberto Casati to read and comment Dutton's book, and we look forward to the discussion of his critical review.


Denis Dutton, The art instinct. Bloomsbury Press: 2009.

The importance of Denis Dutton's book lies in its frank endorsement of two very extreme and controversial theses. The theses are, first, that art is an adaptive cultural phenomenon, one that is rooted in an art instinct, and, second, that this rooting has not only, as one may expect, an explanatory import as to how artworks be or look like, but also normative import as to how artworks should be or look like.

The boldness of the two claims is pretty clear. Even if one agrees that the proper explanation of art must use Darwininan resources, one can aling oneself on milder positions, and consider artistic phenomena not the effects of adapatations but by-products or consequences of adaptations; one may even deny that the notion of an art instinct constitute a natural kind. And even if one agrees on Dutton's claim that an art instinct is indeed an adaptation, one can be more cautious in drawing normative consequences therefrom.

Let me confess a general sympathy for an evolutionary approach to culture in general and to art in particular. I take it for likely that if there is a prospect of naturalizing culture, this will be in the framework of a theory of evolution. However, there are many nuances to be discussed and options to be assessed. I think there are various reasons to resist both of the book's claims on the basis of evidence that contrasts with the evidence alleged in Dutton's book, or reinterprets the latter differently.

Dutton's evolutionary hypotheses

At several points in the book, Dutton endorses the strongest possible version of extremely controversial hypotheses, without much arguing.

Read more: Book review : The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton.

Incest in France

The French used to be astoundingly tolerant of incest, but times are changing. Cover of the 1984 single Lemon Incest, a song featuring Serge Gainsbourg with his daughter Charlotte. Videoclip here.

Mutually consensual incest is a classic puzzle for moral psychologists : on the one hand, it harms neither the lovers nor society, on the other hand, most people think there is something seriously wrong about it. That's what Jonathan Haidt illustrates with a famous scenario of brother-sister incest, the story of Mark and Julie.

"Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other."

Haidt famously found that most people strongly rejected Mark and Julie's behaviour, even though the scenario carefully forestalls any bad consequences that might result from it. But, unlike Haidt's subjects, the French authorities (on whose territory the scenario takes place) do not consider that Mark and Julie's behaviour deserves punishment. In Virginia where Jon Haidt teaches and (I guess) hired his subjects, incest is a Class One Misdemeanour, punishable by one year of jail (see here). In France (and in many other countries where brotherly cuddling is seen with a friendly eye, such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Portugal, Turkey, Japan, Argentina and Brazil), Mark and Julie risk nothing. So far.

In March of this year, a group of right-wing deputies submitted a very strange proposition to outlaw incest when (at least) one of the participants is under legal age. The text stands good chances of being adopted.

Read more: Incest in France

Institutions again - What is a primitive society?

That is the rather provocative question that Richard Posner asked in a 1980 article that I only recently discovered - and I think should be on the reading list of a decent cognitive anthropology course, as the issues are certainly relevant to understanding the cognitive underpinnings of institutions. The term “primitive” may of course deter some from reading on - but that would be a pity, as nothing in Posner’s analysis hinges on the denizens of that kind of human group being less sophisticated than those of agrarian-state and industrial varieties. “Primitive” here means that some crucial elements of large-scale social organization, like economic, judicial and state institutions, are just not there in many small-scale societies. Understanding social life under such conditions is crucial for an anthropology of institutions.

Social organization and the cost of information

Small-scale human groups share some structural features that anyone who ever took an anthropology course will recognize - as these communities are the mainstay of the classical anthropological literature. Posner lists them as the following:
“Weak government, ascription of rights and duties on the basis of family membership, gift-giving as a fundamental mode of exchange, strict liability for injuries, emphasis on generosity and honor as high ethical norms”
What is the origin of this particular, highly recurrent bundle of features?

Read more: Institutions again - What is a primitive society?

The interpretand

This is the second installment of a series of posts on a cognitive approach to interpretive traditions. The aim of this series is a general framework for the analysis of interpretive traditions.

When I began to study the use of the Bible at Creekside Baptist Church, I tried to proceed systematically, beginning with very basic questions. The most basic question, I thought, was surely, “What do they mean by the Bible?” After all, one can stroll into any bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan and find a dozen different Bibles on the shelves. Most are just different editions of a few different translations. At Creekside Baptist there were 23 different translations in use, and it was not uncommon that several different translations would be consulted when a difficult passage was under discussion. So people at Creekside Baptist were well aware that translations differed, but had no difficulty calling all of the mainstream Bibles and referring to any of them as the Bible or the word of the Lord. I will not recount here the trail of evidence that I followed, but in the end I concluded that the people of Creekside Baptist thought of the Bible as a text, but as no particular text. (By text I mean an ordered series of words rather than any of the bizarre and frequently incoherent notions sometimes invoked by philosophical and literary theories.) In short, there was no definition of the Bible, but rather a characterization that obviated the need for a definition in almost all contexts. In the case of evangelicalism in an American context, this absence of a definition actually facilitated interpretive discourse by making the Bible or whole sets of alternate readings that could be invoked as relevant.

For the purpose of the present discussion, however, the major point is that the interpretand of this tradition, the Bible, was not a simple object or a particular text, but should be understood as a concept. By this I do not mean merely that Bibles are conceptualized, which of course they are. What I mean is that the interpretand—the thing that interpretations point to by virtue of being interpretations of something—is a concept, with more and less direct connections to material things in the world.

In fact, the interpretand need not actually have the content attributed to it.

Read more: The interpretand

How I found glaring errors in Einstein's calculations

Call me radical, call me a maverick. Rather than slavishly swallowing the scientific orthodoxy from establishment textbooks, I decided to go back to the original papers. I have identified several embarassing errors of mathematics and physical reasoning in Einstein’s original 1905 paper on the “Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, the alleged beginning of “special relativity”, one of the main tenets of standard modern physics (despite its manifest absurdity). Once Einstein’s errors are corrected, we can establish a new foundation for physics that is consistent with commonsense experience, and does not require fancy mathematical tricks. Not surprisingly, I have been thwarted in all my attempts to publish these findings in scientific journals, which is why I have decided to post them on the Internet.

Or rather, I have not, but I know lots of people who have. For some time now, I have been an avid reader and collector of webpages created by crackpot physicists, those marginal self-styled scientists whose foundational, generally revolutionary work is sadly ignored by most established scientists. These are the great heroes, at least in their own eyes, of alternative science. In pre-Internet ages, these people routinely sent sheaves of notes and articles to established physicists and mathematicians, warning them that the papers contained proofs of Goldbach’s conjecture or Fermat’s theorem, or revolutionary models of gravitation and the atom. Scientists would just as routinely consign all this brilliant stuff to the wastepaper basket.

But then a miracle happened - CERN and DARPA created the Internet… and crackpots now all have their webpages! The whole world can benefit from exposure to alternative science.

Not all nuts are good crackpots

There is of course a practically infinite amount of drivel on the net. Only serious crackpots are interesting - and relevant to your common cognitive anthropologist. In my informal ethnography I have ignored many sources of Internet nonsense that are of no relevance to important epistemological questions. I have no time for religious fanatics, for people who find proof of the Bible/Qur’an in particle physics/Fermat’s theorem (or vice-versa), or for New Age crystals, waves, mental energy, spiritual forces, auras, quantum consicousness and hidden dimensions of being. No, the really interesting crackpots are the ones trying to really, seriously do science, because their productions and their failures tells us important things about science itself.

Read more: How I found glaring errors in Einstein's calculations

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

An update on the Pirahã

The Pirahã are a tribe of Amazonian Indian who have become famous among linguists and psychologists because it has been claimed that they lack a number system (not even  a word for one), recursion, and color words (and they seem to be a very happy people despite  the absence of Louis Vuitton shops, something I dare not believe).

Dan Everett, an ex-missionary/linguist/anthropologist, is one of the few people to speak their language, and he is responsible for most of the provocative claims about the Pirahã (see for instance this paper in Current Anthropology). A few months back, he published an autobiographical description of life among the Pirahã, accompanied by a popular science account of his discoveries: Don't Sleep There Are Snakes.


Read more: An update on the Pirahã

10,000 Year Danger Marker?


Here's a real-world puzzle for students of precautionary cognition.

The US Department of Energy's "Waste Isolation Pilot Plan" is a program to store nuclear waste in an area that will remain toxic to humans for at least 10,000 years. The planners need to place markers that will discourage vandalism and reliably convey danger for 400 generations.

The Edvard Munch aspect of the image above seems promising, but English text?

They also considered planting immense spikes to inspire awe as well as aversion:




To explore some of the options the planners have considered, see here.

What would you propose?

Pictures of the week: Culture and Cognition in Cetaceans

At the Centre d'éducation et de recherche de Sept-Iles in Quebec, we study social interactions among cetaceans. Culture and cognition studies on cetaceans are quite recent compared with the extensive research conducted on other species. There are three reasons for this: 1) most research on cetacean behaviour adopts an "ecology validity" approach; 2) only captive cetaceans (mostly members of the Delphinidae family) can be part of controlled laboratory experiments; and 3) cetaceans spend most of their time underwater. whales_1


Photo 1. A pair of blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) during mating season. The pairings show specific attributes related to the position of each animal during navigation; the female, who leads, will dictate the speed and the navigational direction of the pair. If the male speeds up a little, the female will slowdown bringing the male to reposition himself at a specific distance (unpublished data). During the surface navigation, an almost perfect coordination between the female and the male brings the pair to dive at exactly the same time. We are interested in the nature of the stimuli that makes this coordination possible.




Still, in recent years, long-term studies of cetaceans in the wild have brought to light some interesting behavioural patterns that are better explained as cultural phenomenon transmitted through stimulus enhacement. Some recent studies have investigated the social function of vocal communication in sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Others have focused on the learning of feeding techniques in the bottlenose dolphins (Tursiosps truncates).

Our own research focuses, in part, on the cognitive development of finback whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena).

Read more: Pictures of the week: Culture and Cognition in Cetaceans

Why are minimally counter-intuitive concepts special?

For me, it was love at first sight. As soon as I saw Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained at the new-books-shelf of a suburban Maryland Barnes & Nobles on a rainy Saturday morning in 2001, I was smitten. My wife complained that I became physically incapable of looking away from the pages of the book until I finished it 12 hours later!  For the first time in my life, I found an explanation of a religious phenomenon that sounded something like science and it was based on cognitive science (the area of my graduate training)!  I was utterly fascinated by the twin notions that (1) most of the religious concepts around the world are minimally counterintuitive, and (2) that minimally counter-intuitive concepts are more memorable than other types of concepts.  However, it also left me with a nagging question that was to haunt me for months and become the primary driver of my research for the next few years.  What I wondered was why do we have a memory architecture that preferentially processes minimally counter-intuitive concepts?  What evolutionary benefits could an agent gain by filling its head up with knowledge of non-existent entities and events such as a flying cow? 

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How Grandma stopped worrying, and started to love cognitive anthropology

In the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a paper by Dimitrios Kapogiannis et al. proposes "an integrative cognitive neuroscience framework for understanding the cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief." The Independent comments the study in the following way: "A belief in God is deeply embedded in the human brain, which is programmed for religious experiences (...) The researchers said their findings support the idea that the brain has evolved to be sensitive to any form of belief that improves the chances of survival, which could explain why a belief in God and the supernatural became so widespread in human evolutionary history.".

These last few years, it's become more and more difficult to tell my old folks about the kind of work that I do. Like Nicola, I often get the question: What exactly is that topic you're working on? And the answer: "cognitive anthropology", seldom satisfies anyone. Results have been scarce and progress uneven. Recently, my grandmother enquired, in a way that was slightly more earnest than usual, when it was that I would finally "get my exams" and find a proper job.

But I regain confidence every time I hear that a major anthropological problem has been solved by Neuroscientists using fMRI brain scans. Today, such a thing happened, and I feel that for once, I will have something to say next time we meet at the kitchen table. It will be something like this:

Read more: How Grandma stopped worrying, and started to love cognitive anthropology

Interpretive traditions

My principle contribution to the Cognitive Science of Religion has been an ethnography of an interpretive tradition, How the Bible Works, in which I developed a cognitively informed model of evangelical Christians' use of the Bible. As extraordinary and fascinating as the Biblicist tradition is, I have always wanted to explore interpretive traditions more broadly, in terms of cognitive theory. So I am seizing my chance. This is the first installment of a series of posts on a cognitive approach to interpretive traditions.

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment. The church my family attended, Calvary Bible Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was formed in 1929 as part of the initial wave of fundamentalist churches. One of the things that defines Christian fundamentalists is their belief that the Bible is the word of God, that it is a verbal revelation (not merely a verbal rendition of a revelation) from God, and as such is completely true and authoritative. A considerable amount of intellectual effort in my youth was spent working out the implications of this doctrine, and, ironically, it was ultimately my search for a consistent interpretation of it that drove me from fundamentalism. Anyway, by the time I got around to deciding on a topic for my doctoral thesis, it had become clear to me that neither fundamentalists nor the scholars who studied them really understood what was happening when fundamentalists and evangelicals interacted with the Bible and with each other around the Bible. I knew I didn't understand it either, so I decided to take a crack at the problem.



Calvary Bible Church, today.

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In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust

The last issue of Science reports a fascinating piece of research on the facial display of disgust among participants whom have been treated unfairly in an economic game. Here is the abstract:

In common parlance, moral transgressions “leave a bad taste in the mouth.” This metaphor implies a link between moral disgust and more primitive forms of disgust related to toxicity and disease, yet convincing evidence for this relationship is still lacking. We tested directly the primitive oral origins of moral disgust by searching for similarity in the facial motor activity evoked by gustatory distaste (elicited by unpleasant tastes), basic disgust (elicited by photographs of contaminants), and moral disgust (elicited by unfair treatment in an economic game). We found that all three states evoked activation of the levator labii muscle region of the face, characteristic of an oral-nasal rejection response. These results suggest that immorality elicits the same disgust as disease vectors and bad tastes.

Following anthropologist Richard Schweder, psychologist Jonathan Haidt has proposed that some of our moral judgments (about incest, purity, or chastity) come from our “sense of disgust”. Do these results argue in favour of such a theory of morality ?


Read more: In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust

What is an institution, that people may participate in it?

In a recent post, Christophe Heintz told us about “institutions that make us smart”. The posting was of great interest by itself, and got us thinking about institutions - our field still has its work cut out if we want to make sense of institutions.

We have all sorts of interesting tools and theories in cognitive anthropology (as that should be the name of our field - see discussion here), but precious little to say about institutions. That is, to put it mildly, rather unfortunate as many social phenomena seem to depend on the interaction between people and their institutions. Cognitive anthropology should be the place to understand why and how people are compelled by institutional arrangements such as money, marriage, law courts, schools and markets. So far, we cannot say we have made great progress in that direction.

Read more: What is an institution, that people may participate in it?

Cross-cultural differences in risk taking

The study of our way of dealing with risky situations (situations that involve potential losses) is one of the cornerstones of the judgment and decision making literature. It is generally taken for granted that the psychological mechanisms underlying our reactions towards risk are universal. As a result, only few cross-cultural studies have been carried out on this topic. One of the exceptions is a nice set of studies by Weber and Hsee comparing the attitudes towards risk of American and Chinese participants (mostly). Though they are not very recent (late 90's), I'm reporting these studies because they illustrate several interesting points.

The first finding is that PRC (Chinese) participants are more risk seeking than American participants (Weber & Hsee, 1998).

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