An Epidemiology of Representation


A Talk with Dan Sperber over at Edge:

[DAN SPERBER:] What I want to know is how, in an evolutionary perspective, social cultural phenomena relate to psychological mental phenomena.

The social and the psychological sciences,when they emerged as properly scholarly disciplines with their own departments in the nineteenth century took quite different approaches, adopted different methodologies, asked different questions. Psychologists lost sight of the fact that what's happening in human minds is always informed by the culture in which individuals grow. Social scientists lost sight of the fact that the transmission, the maintenance, and the transformation of culture takes place not uniquely but in part in these individual psychological processes. This means that if what you're studying is culture, the part played by the psychological moments, or episodes, in the transmission of culture should be seen as crucial. I find it unrealistic to think of culture as something hovering somehow above individuals — culture goes through them, and through their minds and their bodies and that is, in good part, where culture is being made.

I've been arguing for a very long time now that one should think of the evolved psychological makeup of human beings both as a source of constraints on the way culture can develop, evolve, and also, of course, as what makes culture possible in the first place. I've been arguing against the now discredited “blank slate” view of the human mind—now splendidly laid to rest by Steve Pinker—but it wasn't discredited when I was a student, in fact the “blank slate” view was what we were taught and what most people went on teaching. Against this, I was arguing that there were specific dispositions, capacities, competencies, in the human mind that gave rise to culture, contributed to shaping it, and also constrained the way it can evolve — so that led me to work both in anthropology—and more generally in the social sciences—,which was my original domain, and,more and more, in what was to become cognitive sciences.

In those years, the late 60s, psychology was in the early stags of the “cognitive revolution.” It was a domain that really transformed itself in a radical manner. This was, and still is, a very exciting intellectual period in which to live, with, alas, nothing comparable happening in social sciences, (where little that is truly exciting has happened during this period in my opinion). I wanted the social sciences to take advantage of this revolution in the study of cognition and I've tried to suggest how this could be done.

How do the microprocesses of cultural transmission affect the macro structure of culture, its content, its evolution? The microprocesses, the small-scale local processes I am talking about are, on the one hand, psychological processes that happen inside people's brains, and on the other hand, changes that people bring about in their common environment—for instance the noise they make when they talk or the paths they unconsciously maintain when they walk—and through which they interact.

More here.