The Function of Reason: A Conversation With Dan Sperber

From Edge:

ScreenHunter_2608 Feb. 25 20.16The general question I've been living with is how do we go about getting a better scientific grip on everything social? The social sciences have developed away from the natural sciences, even with some bit of hostility toward natural sciences, and that, I believe, is a source of poverty. If we want to have a more ambitious understanding of how social life functions, of the mechanisms involved, the challenge is to achieve continuity with neighboring natural sciences. The obvious neighbors to begin with are cognitive neuroscience, ecology, biology, and others.

I started as a social scientist. I started as an anthropologist doing fieldwork in a small group of people in the south of Ethiopia, asking myself fairly standard anthropological questions.

I was in this tribe in the south of Ethiopia, studying rituals—sacrifices and divinations. They had a fairly rich ritual life with lots of symbols and so on, and I would keep asking them, “What is the meaning of the symbols you’re using? What are the reasons for why you do this ritual the way you do?” And I never got a satisfactory answer, or so I thought. When asked about the meaning they said, “We do it because that’s what our fathers did, and our forefathers.” That was always the answer: “We do it because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” I was very frustrated by this and went looking for possibly better informants—an older member of the society, a “wise man,” or whatever—who would know more, but I never found them.

More here.