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Human Cultures through the Scientific Lens: Essays in Evolutionary Cognitive Anthropology

Human Cultures through the Scientific Lens: Essays in Evolutionary Cognitive Anthropology Pascal Boyer
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-80064-206-5 £21.95
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This volume brings together a collection of seven articles previously published by the author, with a new introduction reframing the articles in the context of past and present questions in anthropology, psychology and human evolution. It promotes the perspective of ‘integrated’ social science, in which social science questions are addressed in a deliberately eclectic manner, combining results and models from evolutionary biology, experimental psychology, economics, anthropology and history. It thus constitutes a welcome contribution to a gradually emerging approach to social science based on E. O. Wilson’s concept of ‘consilience’.

Human Cultures through the Scientific Lens spans a wide range of topics, from an examination of ritual behaviour, integrating neuro-science, ethology and anthropology to explain why humans engage in ritual actions (both cultural and individual), to the motivation of conflicts between groups. As such, the collection gives readers a comprehensive and accessible introduction to the applications of an evolutionary paradigm in the social sciences.

This volume will be a useful resource for scholars and students in the social sciences (particularly psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology and the political sciences), as well as a general readership interested in the social sciences.


Human Cultures through the Scientific Lens: Essays in Evolutionary Cognitive Anthropology
Pascal Boyer |  July 2021
290pp. | 10 Colour Illustrations | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm)
ISBN Paperback: 9781800642065
ISBN Hardback: 9781800642072
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781800642089
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781800642096
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781800642102
ISBN Digital (XML): 9781800642119
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0257
BIC: JH (Sociology and anthropology), JHM (Anthropology),JHMC(Social and cultural anthropology, ethnography), PSA(Life sciences: general issues); BISAC: SOC002000 (SOCIAL SCIENCE / Anthropology / General), SOC002010 (SOCIAL SCIENCE / Anthropology / Cultural & Social), SOC002020 (SOCIAL SCIENCE / Anthropology / Physical), SCI080000 (SCIENCE / Essays), SCI086000 (SCIENCE / Life Sciences / General). OCLC Number: 1260172364.


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List of Tables and Illustrations

1. Anthropology, Useful and Scientific: An Introduction

This presents, very briefly, the project of a cultural anthropology that is informed by evolutionary biology, psychology and economics. This "consilient” version of the social sciences, to adopt EO Wilson’s terminology, is based on the idea that we cannot understand human cultures in their diversity and commonalities, without this perspective. The introduction then provides a brief survey of the volume.

2. Institutions and Human Nature

Most standard social science accounts only offer limited explanations of institutional design, i.e. why institutions have common features observed in many different human groups. Here we suggest that these features are best explained as the outcome of evolved human cognition, in such domains as mating, moral judgment and social exchange. As empirical illustrations, we show how this evolved psychology makes marriage systems, legal norms and commons management systems intuitively obvious and compelling, thereby ensuring their occurrence and cultural stability. We extend this to propose under what conditions institutions can become ‘natural’, compelling and legitimate, and outline probable paths for institutional change given human cognitive dispositions. Explaining institutions in terms of these exogenous factors also suggests that a general theory of institutions as such is neither necessary nor in fact possible. What are required are domain-specific accounts of institutional design in different domains of evolved cognition.

3. Why Ritualized Behavior?

Ritualized behavior, intuitively recognizable by its stereotypy, rigidity, repetition, and apparent lack of rational motivation, is found in a variety of life conditions, customs, and everyday practices: in cultural rituals, whether religious or non-religious; in many children’s complicated routines; in the pathology of obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD); in normal adults around certain stages of the life-cycle, birthing in particular. Combining evidence from evolutionary anthropology, neuropsychology and neuroimaging, we propose an explanation of ritualized behavior in terms of an evolved Precaution System geared to the detection of and reaction to inferred threats to fitness. This system, distinct from fear-systems geared to respond to manifest danger, includes a repertoire of clues for potential danger as well as a repertoire of species-typical precautions. In OCD pathology, this system does not supply a negative feedback to the appraisal of potential threats, resulting in doubts about the proper performance of precautions, and repetition of action. Also, anxiety levels focus the attention on low-level gestural units of behavior rather than on the goal-related higher-level units normally used in parsing the action-flow. Normally automatized actions are submitted to cognitive control. This "swamps” working memory, an effect of which is a temporary relief from intrusions but also their long-term strengthening. Normal activation of this Precaution System explains intrusions and ritual behaviors in normal adults. Gradual calibration of the system occurs through childhood rituals. Cultural mimicry of this system’s normal input makes cultural rituals attention-grabbing and compelling. A number of empirical predictions follow from this synthetic model.

4. Social Groups and Adapted Minds

Contacts between people from different groups engage a variety of human competencies and motivations, from high-level representations of social categories to visceral responses when confronted with strangers, from cognitive appraisal of conflict to a desire to exclude or even attack "others.” There is a correspondingly diverse set of fields and subfields in psychology and the social sciences focusing on such specific topics as racial prejudice, in-group bias, ethnic identity, xenophobia, and nationalism. In this article, we propose a model that cuts across boundaries between these different fields to describe and explain fundamental aspects of intergroup relations. We propose that many aspects of intergroup relations should be construed as different manifestations of a coalitional psychology. We describe coalitional psychology as a set of evolved mechanisms designed to garner support from conspecifics, organize and maintain alliances, and increase an alliance’s chance of success against rival coalitions. In this perspective, the core psychological mechanisms are the same, independent of whether the alliance in question is formed as ethnic (based on perceived similarity and common origin), racial (based on ethnicity combined with phenotypic similarity), regional, or political, and so forth.

5. How People Think about the Economy

The domain of "folk-economics” consists in explicit beliefs about the economy held by laypeople, untrained in economics, about such topics as, for example, the causes of the wealth of nations, the benefits or drawbacks of markets and international trade, the effects of regulation, the origins of inequality, the connection between work and wages, the economic consequences of immigration, or the possible causes of unemployment. These beliefs are crucial in forming people’s political beliefs and in shaping their reception of different policies. Yet, they often conflict with elementary principles of economic theory and are often described as the consequences of ignorance, irrationality, or specific biases. As we will argue, these past perspectives fail to predict the particular contents of popular folk-economic beliefs and, as a result, there is no systematic study of the cognitive factors involved in their emergence and cultural success. Here we propose that the cultural success of particular beliefs about the economy is predictable if we consider the influence of specialized, largely automatic inference systems that evolved as adaptations to ancestral human small-scale sociality. These systems, for which there is independent evidence, include free-rider detection, fairness-based partner choice, ownership intuitions, coalitional psychology, and more. Information about modern mass-market conditions activates these specific inference systems, resulting in particular intuitions, for example, that impersonal transactions are dangerous or that international trade is a zero-sum game. These intuitions in turn make specific policy proposals more likely than others to become intuitively compelling, and, as a consequence, exert a crucial influence on political choices.

6. Detecting Mental Disorder

How do people detect mental dysfunction? What is the influence of cultural models of dysfunction on this detection process? The detection process as such is not usually researched as it falls between the domains of cross-cultural psychiatry (focusing on the dysfunction itself) and anthropological ethno-psychiatry (focusing on cultural models of sanity and madness). I provide a general model for this ‘‘missing link’’ between behavior and cultural models, grounded in empirical evidence for intuitive psychology. Normal adult minds entertain specific intuitive expectations about mental function and behavior, and by implication they infer that specific kinds of behavior are the result of underlying dysfunction. This suggests that there is a ‘‘catalogue’’ of possible behaviors that trigger that intuition, hence a limited catalogue of possible symptoms that feed into culturally specific folk-understandings of mental disorder. It also suggests that some mental dysfunctions, as they do not clearly violate principles of intuitive psychology, are ‘‘invisible’’ to folk-understandings. This perspective allows us to understand the cultural stability and spread of particular views of madness. It also suggests why certain types of mental disorder are invisible to folk-understandings.

7. The Ideal of Integrated Social Science

Why is most cultural anthropology largely irrelevant? The voice of that particular field in broader academic discussions is almost inaudible, its scholars are no longer among the recognizable and important public intellectuals of the day, and its contribution to public debates is close to nonexistent. This last feature is all the more troubling, as the subject matter of cultural anthropology would seem to place it at the center of crucial social debates. Although I will substantiate this rather harsh diagnosis, the point of this chapter is less to offer a jeremiad than to propose an etiology and perhaps a cure for the current predicament of cultural anthropology. My diagnosis is that this is a largely self-inflected condition. What is clear is that a vast domain is open to cultural anthropological investigation, provided that the practitioners accept substantive re-tooling and discard old fetishes. If slogans are needed, an integrated study of culture should proclaim the great values of reductionism, the ambition to understand the causal processes underpinning behaviors; opportunism, the use of whatever tools and findings get us closer to that goal; and revisionism, a deliberate indifference to disciplinary creeds and traditions. The integrated view of human culture—what some may call a "vertical integration” in the field—will allow cultural anthropology to return to the highly ambitious set of questions it should have addressed all along.