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Culture evolves

A new issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences with the title 'Culture evolves', edited by Andrew Whiten, Robert A. Hinde, Christopher B. Stringer and Kevin N. Laland is available online here. If you do not have free access, we encourage you to check the individual web pages of the author -- whom we encourage to post all their papers, vive le open access! –- and, if need be, to ask them for the Pdf. Here below is the table of contents.

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Three posts on ritual and group formation at Oxford

Applications are sought for three posts focusing on the history of ritual and group formation, as part of an international project entitled 'Ritual, community and conflict', based in the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at the University of Oxford, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and directed by Professor Harvey Whitehouse.

Read more: Three posts on ritual and group formation at Oxford

War as a moral imperative

Jeremy Ginges and and Scott Atran again illustrate the relevance of a cognition and culture approach to major political and societal concerns with their article,  "War as a moral imperative (not just practical politics by other means)" published online, Feb. 16, 2011, in the Proceedings of the  Royal Society B and available here.

Abstract: We present findings from one survey and five experiments carried out in the USA, Nigeria and the Middle East showing that judgements about the use of deadly intergroup violence are strikingly insensitive to quantitative indicators of success, or to perceptions of their efficacy. By demonstrating that judgements about the use of war are bounded by rules of deontological reasoning and parochial commitment, these findings may have implications for understanding the trajectory of violent political conflicts. Further, these findings are compatible with theorizing that links the evolution of within-group altruism to intergroup violence.

Summer University in Experimental Methods in the Study of Cognition and Culture

This 4-week course to take place at Aarhus University, Denmark, August 1 – 26, 2011 is aimed at graduate students in the humanities and social sciences interested in an introduction to experimental methods engaging questions in the interface of cognition and culture. The course will combine top-level lectures by internationally renowned specialists (Pascal Boyer, Jessie Prinz, Quinton Deeley and Chris and Uta Frith), with practical instructions, teaching and workshops aimed to enhance students' abilities to engage in concrete research projects that address well-defined research questions.

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Evolutionary Theory and the Ultimate–Proximate Distinction in the Human Behavioral Sciences

The January issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science publishes a paper by Thomas Scott-Phillips, Thomas Dickins, and Stuart West entitled "Evolutionary Theory and the Ultimate-Proximate Distinction in the Human Behavioral Sciences." (also discussed here by Rob Kurzban) Although this distinction is well-known and widely used in evolutionary and cognitive approaches, the authors point out that in several areas, including the study of the evolution of cooperation, cultural transmission, and epigenetics debates are fraught with confusions between ultimate ands proximal explanations. They show, for instance, that 'strong reciprocity', as advocated by Ernst Fehr and others, often presented as a solution to the ultimate question "why do we cooperate", is only a solution about the proximal question "how do we cooperate".

Here is the abstract:

To properly understand behavior, we must obtain both ultimate and proximate explanations. Put briefly, ultimate explanations are concerned with why a behavior exists, and proximate explanations are concerned with how it works. These two types of explanation are complementary and the distinction is critical to evolutionary explanation. We are concerned that they have become conflated in some areas of the evolutionary literature on human behavior. This article brings attention to these issues. We focus on three specific areas: the evolution of cooperation, transmitted culture, and epigenetics. We do this to avoid confusion and wasted effort—dangers that are particularly acute in interdisciplinary research. Throughout this article, we suggest ways in which misunderstanding may be avoided in the future.

PhD in Cognitive Science at the CEU, Budapest

Starting 2011-12, the Department of Cognitive Science at the CEU, Budapest,  will offer a PhD programme in Cognitive Science.

The curriculum: The main goal of the PhD program will be to ensure that the students master the basic notions and theories in cognitive science and can do cutting-edge doctoral research in one area of expertise of program, such as social cognitive sciences and the study of social cognition. The PhD program will provide basic training (taught courses) on at least the following topics: Cognitive psychology, Research methods in cognitive science, Social cognition.

Faculty: Gergely Csibra (cognitive development, cognitive neuroscience, József Fiser [from September 2011] (visual perception and cognition, biological and statistical learning), ...

Read more: PhD in Cognitive Science at the CEU, Budapest

PhD on Animal Cognition and Communication in Vienna

In recent years, Vienna has become an important center for behavioral and cognitive research, with a strong research focus on comparative cognitive biology. The Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and the University of Vienna have supported this development, by funding a multi-level, integrative PhD training programme on cognition and communication in humans and non-human animals.

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Neuroscience 'boot camp'

The University of Pennsylvania announces their 3rd annual Neuroscience Boot Camp, July 31-August 10. The website is here.

Read more: Neuroscience 'boot camp'

Blogroll update

We just updated our long neglected blogroll with some interesting blogs: Games with words, Robert Kurzban's blog, Konrad Talmont Kaminski's Just another desidaimon, Tom Rees' Epiphenom.

Vote on whether you think "the language we speak shapes how we think"

The Economist is hosting a debate in which readers may vote on whether or not they believe that "the language we speak shapes how we think."

On the official FOR side: Lera Boroditsky / On the official AGAINST side: Mark Lieberman

So far, opening statements and rebuttals have been posted, as well as comments by the moderator and readers of the site. In addition, Dan Slobin has contributed his reaction, and Lila Gleitman's will be posted on Tuesday. The results of the vote will be announced on Thursday.

So far, the yays have it...

The dawn of "culturomics"

A team lead by Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden (Harvard University) just published in Science a paper "Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books" that promises to open a new era in the study of cultural evolution.

We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of "culturomics", focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. "Culturomics" extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.

This research was partly supported by Google's work effort to digitize books. Visit their new Ngram viewer!

Cognitio - Nonhuman Minds: Animal, Artificial or Other Minds

3, 4, 5 July 2011 - UQÀM, Montreal

Cognitio is a young researcher's conference now held every two years at the Université du Québec à Montréal, under the auspices of its Cognitive Science Institute. Over the past several years, Cognitio has been a colloquium where many facets of the human mind were explored. We looked at the relationship between mind and its material substrate (2004), at human decision making (2005), at situated minds (2006), at social cognition (2007) and at the evolution of minds and cultures (2009).

The time has come to turn our attention to "nonhuman minds": to reflect on other minds, on minds that could have been and on minds that could be. Do our primate cousins have minds? And what about other animals? Does it make sense to think of "robot minds" and "artificial minds" in general?

This year, Cognitio will be held at the Université du Québec à Montréal on July 3rd, 4thand 5th 2011, just prior to the joint meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology (SPP) and the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology (ESPP). Submission of proposals for the conference is done through the EasyChair system. We are only asking for 600 words abstracts. EasyChair will allow you to upload a PDF paper if you want to, but only your abstract will be evaluated. The deadline for submissions is March 15th, 2011.

Folk epistemology

Of clear cognition-and-culture interest, a special issue of the Review of Philosophy and Psychology (Volume 1, Number 4 / December 2010) on "Folk Epistemology". For the table of content,

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In EHB : Sixteen misconceptions about the evolution of human cooperation, by West et al.

Now officially published online in Evolution and Human Behavior is a paper by West, El Mouden and Gardner (all from Oxford University) that has been circulating, as a manuscript, in the academic community for almost two years.

The paper (of which a copy can be found here) has several goals and everyone can find something in it. For the non-evolutionnist, it draws a pedagogic overview of the litterature on the evolution of cooperation (including in non-human species). For the evolutionnist, it nicely reviews some of the economic litterature, acknowledging the conceptual advances of this field in domains such as repeated interactions. For the cognitive anthropologist interested in the naturalistic foundations of cooperation, it clarifies some of the usual misconceptions behind widespread concepts such as group selection and strong-reciprocity. A must-read for all!

Here is the abstract:

The occurrence of cooperation poses a problem for the biological and social sciences. However, many aspects of the biological and social science literatures on this subject have developed relatively independently, with a lack of interaction. This has led to a number of misunderstandings with regard to how natural selection operates and the conditions under which cooperation can be favoured. Our aim here is to provide an accessible overview of social evolution theory and the evolutionary work on cooperation, emphasising common misconceptions.

Savage Minds on anthropology, science and truth

In a recent post, Benson Saler commented on the AAA's decision to drop the "science" label  for anthropology. In this post Savage Minds blogger Rex criticizes the critics of the decision. Anthropology, he argues, doesn't need to be scientific in order to be true.

Cognitive Science PhD program at Central European University

PhD studentships are available at the new doctoral program in Cognitive Science at Central European University (CEU), Budapest, Hungary.

The newly established Department of Cognitive Science at CEU invites applications for its doctoral program starting September 2011. This is a research-based training program that specializes in, but is not restricted to, the study of social cognition. Research topics include cooperation, communication, social learning, cultural transmission, joint action, developmental social cognition, strategic decision making, visual cognition, statistical learning, and social cognitive neuroscience. Students will follow courses in cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind, cognitive anthropology, computational cognition and linguistics, and will receive practical research training in the laboratories of the members of this new department. Faculty includes...

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Postdoc for Canadian Citizen in Toronto

Dr Afzal Upal, of Defence Research & Development, Canada-Toronto, informs us: "I am planning to start a 3-year research project on human terrain modeling from April 1, 2011. The basic idea is to study intergroup dynamics by first collecting field data on inter-group perceptions (e.g., Canadian perceptions of Americans and vice versa) and then simulate some aspects of the dynamics of intergroup perceptions in an agent-based society. I feel comfortable with the simulation part but I need help with the social theory building, data collection, and analysis. I think that the most appropriate person would be someone with training in psychology or anthropology, familiar with qualitative techniques, and with some experience of working in the field (as opposed to the lab). I am only allowed to hire a Canadian citizen and only for the duration of the project (although there may be opportunities for further work and a permanent position may open up in the future). The position would require full time presence in suburban Toronto area. Pay is negotiable. Please feel free to forward it to anyone you think may be interested."

In TiCS: Space, Time and Number

Trends in Cognitive Sciences is publishing a special issue on space, time and number with articles by Brian Butterworth, Manuela Piazza, Daniel B.M. Haun and collaborators, and Dori Derdikman and Edvard I. Moser. As Manuella Piazza explains in her article, the field is reap for a very interesting "cognition and culture" debate since there are now several detailed theories about the way number symbols recycle old evolutionary capacities :

"Attaching meaning to arbitrary symbols (i.e. words) is a complex and lengthy process. In the case of numbers, it was previously suggested that this process is grounded on two early pre-verbal systems for numerical quantification: the approximate number system (ANS or 'analogue magnitude'), and the object tracking system (OTS or 'parallel individuation'), which children are equipped with before symbolic learning. Each system is based on dedicated   neural   circuits,   characterized   by   specific computational limits,  and each undergoes  a separate developmental trajectory. Here, I review the available cognitive and neuroscientific data and argue that the available evidence is more consistent with a crucial role for the ANS, rather than for the OTS, in the acquisition of abstract numerical concepts that are uniquely human."

The same topic is of course discussed at length in Susan Carey's recent major book The origin of concepts.

Workshop on the Social Brain (Cambridge, April 2011)

Social_BrainThe MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (Cambridge, England) is organising a worshop on "The Social Brain: Evolution, development, psychopathology and future directions" (Scientific Organisers: Dr Dean Mobbs, Prof. Trevor Robbins, and Prof. Ian Goodyer) on the 12th and 13th April, 2011. Application Deadline: 15th January, 2011. The aim: The aim of this workshop is to provide audience members with state of the art coverage of social neuroscience and make translational and theoretical connections between human brainimaging, comparative research, and neuropsychiatric disorders. We aim to keep the workshop small and extremely interactive.

Faculty: Ernst Fehr, Chris Frith, Uta Frith, Nicky Clayton, Robin Dunbar, Molly Crockett, Ben Seymour, Matt Lieberman, Jason Mitchell, Nikolaus Steinbeis, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Matthew Rushworth, John O'Doherty, Brian Knutson, Henrik Ehrsson, Tania Singer, Wako Yoshida, Nick Humphrey, Predrag Petrovic, Cindy Hagan, and Simon Baron-Cohen.

Read more: Workshop on the Social Brain (Cambridge, April 2011)

Special issue of Mind and Society on experimental economics


Note the Special issue of Mind and Society on "Experimental economics and the social embedding of economic behavior and cognition". Here is the abstract of the introductory article, "The implication of social cognition for experimental economics" by Christophe Heintz and Nicholas Bardsley: "Can human social cognitive processes and social motives be grasped by the methods of experimental economics? Experimental studies of strategic cognition and social preferences contribute to our understanding of the social aspects of economic decisions making. Yet, papers in this issue argue that the social aspects of decision-making introduce several difficulties for interpreting the results of economic experiments. In particular, the laboratory is itself a social context, and in many respects a rather distinctive one, which raises questions of external validity."

The Table of Content:

Read more: Special issue of Mind and Society on experimental economics

Society for Psychological Anthropology Meetings, April 2011

The Society for Psychological Anthropology Biennial Meetings will take place in Santa Monica, CA March 31-April 3, 2011. The theme: "Subjects and Their Milieux in Late Modernity: The Relevance of Psychological Anthropology to Contemporary Problems and Issues" : "In this conference, we continue to innovate within psychological anthropology and reach across subdisciplinary and disciplinary boundaries to explore new areas of practice and theory for the second decade of the 21st century. ... We will focus especially on the relevance of psychological anthropology to problems and issues in the contemporary world--from changing families, workplaces and local communities to religious groups, professions, and transnational institutions like consumer capitalism, world religions, and NGOs. ... Examples of possible panels and papers are ones on child and adolescent development; overlaps between psychological and medical anthropology; transforming perspectives on family, gender, and sexuality; memory and trauma; narrative and identity in institutional contexts; and rethinking theories and research strategies to explore new forms of communication, communities, and being alone. ...Both individual papers (15 minutes) and full panels (1 hour and 45 minutes) are welcome. Younger scholars are particularly encouraged to suggest panel, paper, or discussion group topics."

The deadline for submitting panel and paper proposals is December 1, 2010. More here.

Which network structures favor the rapid spread of new ideas, behaviors, or technologies?

Forthcoming in PNAS, an article entitled "The spread of innovations in social networks" by Andrea Montanari and Amin Saberi (full text available here).

Abstract : Which network structures favor the rapid spread of new ideas, behaviors, or technologies? This question has been studied extensively using epidemic models. Here we consider a complementary point of view and consider scenarios where the individuals' behavior is the result of a strategic choice among competing alternatives. In particular, we study models that are based on the dynamics of coordination games. Classical results in game theory studying this model provide a simple condition for a new action or innovation to become widespread in the network. The present paper characterizes the rate of convergence as a function of the structure of the interaction network. The resulting predictions differ strongly from the ones provided by epidemic models. In particular, it appears that innovation spreads much more slowly on well-connected network structures dominated by long-range links than in low-dimensional ones dominated, for example, by geographic proximity.

Discovery in the social sciences

A workshop on "Discovery in the social sciences: Towards an empirically-informed philosophy of social science" will take place at the University of Leuven, Belgium, March 22-23, 2011. The aim of this workshop is to bring together scholars who are working in the philosophy of the social sciences, especially those interested in scientific practice. The theme is discovery in the social sciences. The keynote speakers are Alison Wylie (University of Washington) and Jack Vromen (Erasmus University Rotterdam). We invite submissions of extended abstracts (about 1000 words), and we are especially eager to hear from young researchers. Submission deadline for abstracts: 31 December, 2010. Here is the workshop's website.

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Temporary Lecturer in Cognition and Culture

Available from 1 February 2011 to 31 August 2012 at Queen's University Belfast - School of History and Anthropology, a Temporary Lectureship in Cognition and Culture to cover a career break, to teach at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, to assist primarily in the current research activities of the Institute of Cognition and Culture, and to undertake research in line with the School's research strategy.

Anticipated interview date: Tuesday 21 December 2010. Closing date: Monday 6 December 2010.

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New book: Human evolution and the origin of hierarchies

Philosopher Benoît Dubreuil just published a book at Cambridge University Press: Human evolution and the origins of hierarchies: the state of nature. Based on his dissertation, the book promises to shed fresh light on key anthropological issues, such as social evolution or the origins of the state. Benoît Dubreuil, ICCI fellow, studies philosophy of science and moral philosophy at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

The book on Cambridge UP's site.

Benoît Bubreuil's website.

Rob Kurzban's new blog on evolutionary psychology

Robert Kurzban (University of Pennsylvania) has launched his new blog. He comments (almost daily!) on articles, news and books related to evolutionary psychology. You may learn the many errors in Buller's recent article against Evolutionary psychology, where to publish evolutionary psychology, or why we always locate our bed in the same place in a room. A must-read if you are interested in the origins of our many cognitive abilities!


Why the West Rules--For Now


Ian Morris, a Stanford historian, has just published a new sweeping history of humanity. In Why the  West Rules--For Now, he builds a theory of the evolution of human societies and tries to explain why the East and the West have been swapping seats for millennia in world domination. The beginning is very promising, and fans of Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel and Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations are likely to appreciate Morris' verve and breadth of knowledge. 

Social interaction in utero?

Fascinating findings by Umberto Castiello, Cristina Becchio, Stefania Zoia,Cristian Nelini, Luisa Sartori, Laura Blason, Giuseppina D'Ottavio, Maria Bulgheroni, and  Vittorio Gallese in an article entitled: "Wired to Be Social: The Ontogeny of Human Interaction" freely available at PLOS One here.


Left: self-directed movement towards the mouth  Right: the foetus "caressing" the head of the sibling.

Abstract: Newborns come into the world wired to socially interact. Is a propensity to socially oriented action already present before birth? Twin pregnancies provide a unique opportunity to investigate the social pre-wiring hypothesis. Although various types of inter-twins contact have been demonstrated starting from the 11th week of gestation, no study has so far investigated the critical question whether intra-pair contact is the result of motor planning rather then the accidental outcome of spatial proximity. ...Kinematic profiles of movements in five pairs of twin foetuses were studied by using four-dimensional ultrasonography during two separate recording sessions carried out at the 14th and 18th week of gestation. We demonstrate that by the 14th week of gestation twin foetuses do not only display movements directed towards the uterine wall and self-directed movements, but also movements specifically aimed at the co-twin, the proportion of which increases between the 14thand 18th gestational week. ...We conclude that performance of movements towards the co-twin is not accidental: already starting from the 14th week of gestation twin foetuses execute movements specifically aimed at the co-twin.

Josh Knobe and Lera Boroditsky debate on language and thought

You have watched Lera Boroditsky's LSE-ICCI lecture. Here you can see her debating with Josh Knobe:


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Poetic rhyme reflects cross-linguistic differences in information structure

An interesting article in the last issue of Cognition suggesting how cognitive differences in language processsing can influence literary tradition. Michael Wagner (McGill) and Katherine McCurdy (Harvard) show that cross-linguistic differences in information structure can explain divergence in French and English poetic tradition (preprint available here).

Abstract: Identical rhymes (right/write, attire/retire) are considered satisfactory and even artistic in French poetry but are considered unsatisfactory in English. This has been a consistent generalization over the course of centuries, a surprising fact given that other aspects of poetic form in French were happily applied in English. This paper puts forward the hypothesis that this difference is not merely one of poetic tradition, but is grounded in the distinct ways in which information-structure affects prosody in the two languages. A study of rhyme usage in poetry and a perception experiment confirm that native speakers' intuitions about rhyming in the two languages indeed differ, and a further perception experiment supports the hypothesis that this fact is due to a constraint on prosody that is active in English but not in French. The findings suggest that certain forms of artistic expression in poetry are influenced, and even constrained, by more general properties of a language.

Is philosophy universal?

Justin Erik Halldor Smith has won this year's 3 Quarks Daily 2010 top philosophy prize with a post on his blog entitled  "More on Non-Western Philosophy (the Very Idea)". This provocative essay is of clear cognition-and-culture relevance. It begins:

Roughly speaking, we might conceptualize the attainments of a given culture as falling into two broad categories. On the one hand, there are things like wagons, gunpowder, and telephony: cultural attainments that, once they have caught on in one society, they cannot but spread to all societies that have the means of acquiring them. There is nothing, for example, intrinsically Chinese about printing. These are things that do not have any special relationship to the context of their origin. On the other hand, there are things like the Pythagorean chromatic scale as opposed to the Indian sargam, or the unicorn motif in Indo-European art: innovations of culture that do not automatically result in global diffusion, since they are only variations on a fixed range of possibilities for the expression of elements of culture --in this instance, music and figurative art-- that are in some form always already there in every culture. In general, inventions diffuse, motifs do not (unless the motifs are from a higher-status conquering elite, which explains in part the abundance of copyright-infringing knock-offs of Disney characters in the developing world...). What sort of innovation is philosophy?

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