Culture: A scientific idea “ready for retirement”?


Alberto Acerbi over at the LSE's International Cognition and Culture Instiute, with comments in the comment section by Pascal Boyer (pictured), Dan Sperber and others:

Every year the website asks their panel a general question on science and/or society. The 2014 question was: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? I did not read (yet) all the answers, but I was surprised to see that two of them, from Pascal Boyer and John Tooby, were one and the same: culture. One could take the answers as a provocation of two evolutionary psychology-minded scholars against mainstream cultural anthropology (which I’d subscribe to). However, knowing Boyer and Tooby's work, and since, when people ask me what my research is about, I tend to answer “human culture” or “cultural evolution”, I think I have to take this challenge quite seriously.

On one level, I agree completely with the answer: “culture” cannot be considered as an unproblematic explanation of any phenomenon. I was recently reflecting on the fact that, while I consider myself an atheist, I find it often unpleasant to hear – let alone pronounce – profanities. Rationally, I know that they are simply a series of sounds, but still I cannot avoid being annoyed. The imaginary naive anthropologist would say: of course, it is your culture! (I am Italian, and I received a then standard Catholic education). But this is exactly what we want to explain: why is this specific “cultural stuff” (being bothered by profanities) and not others (say going to church or pray) still present?

I think that every reader of this blog would agree that it is not useful to use culture as an explanation: we can not explain X (my problematic relationship with profanities, the readiness to perceive interpersonal threats in Southern USA, etc.) with “culture”. As Boyer writes in his answer, “that such processes could lead to roughly stable representations across large numbers of people is a wonderful, anti-entropic process that cries out for explanation”. However I feel like this is a starting point. I would be interested in X as a “cultural stuff”, and then try to explain it. Boyer and Tooby do not seem to agree: “culture”, in their view, is not just mistakenly used as an explanation. It is not a scientific concept at all…

[Dan Sperber in the comments] Culture is a property. What property? Take all practices, artefacts, mental states in a population over time that have some informational content. Ask how are their contents related? Well, they are all links in many causal chains where for an item to be a link in such a chain is to owe some of its content to having been at least partly caused by previous links in the chain. So in a chain of perfect copying, as exists now on the internet, each new token of, say, a given youtube video owes its whole content to the token that has been copied in producing it. In most cases however, in particular before the internet, items having informational content have a more complex informational aetiology, owing some of their content to one causal chain, some to another causal chain, and some to the more or less idiosyncratic process of their production in the mind or through the behaviour of one or several individuals. Take a very idiosyncratic item: someone’s original dream. Even that item owes quite a bit of its content to being a causal descendent of conversations, stories, images, and so on. It is cultural too. You get my point. The more an item gets its informational content from the causal chains in which it occurs, the more cultural it is. Note that to be 100% cultural in this way, it should typically owe all of its content to a single chain, otherwise the recombination itself is likely to involve some idiosyncratic construction.

More here.