Planet Earth

Understanding Culture

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanFeb 10, 2013 7:26 AM

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In light of my twojeremiads against cultural anthropology, some readers may be curious if I have any positive vision, in the sense of any alternative model. To get a sense of my own orientation, Explaining Culture by Dan Sperber and The Origin and Evolution of Cultures by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd would be sufficient (Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust has been highly influential in my thought, but it is a rather dense work whose central topic may not be of interest to everyone). If books are not to your liking, see the resources at the Culture and Cognition Institute. Just to be explicit,

an understanding of evolution or genetics is not necessary to gain a first order understanding of the nature of the phenomenon of human culture, but cognition is.

When I say cognition, I mean the cognitive revolution and its rivals. An anthropology which binds disparate aggregate social phenomena and explains the variation which we see to any satisfaction must be rooted in what we know of the science of the mind. This does not mean that specific factual detail is unnecessary. If you are a long time reader of this weblog you are likely conscious of the reality that I have a life long compulsion in the domain of collection of factual detail of incredible obscurity. But, that detail must cohere to be more than the sum of its parts. The empirical input must be the raw material which analytic frameworks can produce abstractions which impart to us deductive insights. And it is at the empirical element where modern American cultural anthropology tends to be problematic. Good science is a messy synthesis of theoretical system building, empirical observation and experimentation, and a critical skeptical component which serves to sharpen one's inferences and helps to reject spurious conclusions. Jared Diamond arguably does not engage in enough skepticism of his own numerous propositions. But many cultural anthropologists engage in such a tsunami of skepticism about definitive propositions, semantic shadow-boxing which ends in a flight toward solipsism, that they end up saying very little about the broader objective relevance of their subjects, aside from the negative (e.g., population X disproves universality Z; for skeptics of "science" modern cultural anthropologists often seem to strangely behave like insane Popperians). As nature abhors a vacuum the discussion then moves toward more well defined normative considerations, as well methodological analysis. This produces a confusing muddle to outsiders, even if insiders are able to discern the distinctive strands within the intellectual gumbo.

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