Deacon featured on PLoS Neuroanthropology

Neuroanthropology has moved to PLoS Neuroanthropology.

Our recent feature was Terrence Deacon’s article on the evolution of language in PNAS (May, 2010). You may like to read our in-depth post. Here’s a teaser:

Deacon (2010) puts forward an argument that language was not exclusively the product of the interorganismic processes of natural and sexual selection. Interorganismic processes include differential reproduction, divergence, drift, recombination and environment-correlated preservation (niche complementation). Deacon hypothesises that language evolved from the space for innovation afforded by the relaxation of selective pressures and the recruitment of intraorganismic evolution-like processes. Intraorganismic processes include redundancy, degeneracy, epigenetic accommodation, and synergy-correlated preservation (redistribution and complexification).

To read our more in-depth summary visit PLoS Neuroanthropology. And you can also check below the fold for a video of Deacon lecturing, as well as links to other coverage of Deacon’s work.

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Proceedings from ASCS 09 Conference online

The Proceedings of the 9th Conference of the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science, held in Sydney last year, are now online for anyone to access. Thanks to the editors, Wayne Christensen, Elizabeth Schier, and John Sutton, for pulling the whole collection together!

I didn’t get to stay for the whole conference because I was running around doing preparation things for the Australian Anthropological Society Conference that we held in December. Nevertheless, I saw some really good papers, and some of the others are especially interesting for those of us interested in neuroanthropology. Please peruse the whole list, but for a discussion of cultural variation in cognition, of special interest might be: Nian Liu’s Tuesday, Threesday, Foursday: Chinese names for the days of the week facilitate Chinese children’s temporal reasoning, Zhengdao Ye’s Eating and drinking in Mandarin and Shanghainese: A lexical-conceptual analysis, Collaborative remembering: When can remembering with others be beneficial? by Celia B. Harris, Paul G. Keil, John Sutton and Amanda J. Barnier, and Expanding expertise: Investigating a musician’s experience of music performance by Andrew Geeves, Doris McIlwain, and John Sutton.

I also like the look of Evaluation of a model of expert decision making in air traffic control, by Stefan Lehmann and colleagues, but I haven’t had the time to really read it (and won’t get time for a few days). Ben Jeffares’ paper was excellent in presentation, but I haven’t yet checked out the written version yet: The evolution of technical competence: strategic and economic thinking.

My paper from the conference, Cultural variation in elite athletes: Does elite cognitive-perceptual skill always converge?, is available as a pdf. I have to admit, it’s a shallower paper than I usually like to present, but I had to cover a LOT of turf, and it’s primarily a proposal for a research program, reviewing the neurological and behavioural places where I expect we might find the clearest evidence of cultural difference in neural dynamics. I’ll take the liberty of reposting the abstract:

Anthropologists have not participated extensively in the cognitive science synthesis for a host of reasons, including internal conflicts in the discipline and profound reservations about the ways that cultural differences have been modeled in psychology, neuroscience, and other contributors to cognitive science. This paper proposes a skills-based model for culture that overcomes some of the problems inherent in the treatment of culture as shared information. Athletes offer excellent cases studies for how skill acquisition, like enculturation, affects the human nervous system. In addition, cultural differences in playing styles of the same sport, such as distinctive ways of playing rugby, demonstrate how varying solution strategies to similar athletic problems produce distinctive skill profiles.

I’d love to hear any responses to the piece. I don’t usually present in cognitive science, as I’m more comfortable in my home discipline of anthropology, working from a pretty solid base of anthropology into the border of brain-culture research, so I’d be interested to learn what scholars situated more confidently in cognitive science think of the piece.

Thinking through Claude Lévi-Strauss

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Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1908-2009


Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the true giants of anthropology, passed away this past week on 30 October, just shy of 101 years old.

As Maurice Bloch writes, Lévi-Strauss was ‘the last survivor of these great beasts such as Sartre, Foucault and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu,’ the theorists who have given contemporary anthropology, and social theory around the world, a French accent and Gallic cadence.

Excellent obituaries appeared in a number of places, two of my favourites being the one by Bloch in The Guardian, and another by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times (thanks, Jovan!).

I’m not going to retread the substance of these obituaries, nor will I repeat what was better (and more quickly) written by other commentators online such as Rex at Savage Minds, Marshall Sahlins at the AAA website (for the 100th birthday), Richard Price, a student of Lévi-Strauss, and Robert Mackey at the NYTimes website, The influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss (a piece that links to a number of video clips in English and French, including interviews with other scholars). Instead, I’m going to write briefly about the relation of Lévi-Strauss to the study of brain and culture from my perspective.

I’ve been wanting to write a post on Lévi-Strauss for a while, and even started it once, because I’ve been grappling with the question about how neuroanthropology aspires to produce theoretical and empirical projects that are distinct from what is typically called ‘cognitive anthropology.’ Lévi-Strauss’ work is crucial to the foundation of cognitive anthropology, as a range of authors have argued (see Sperber 2008, for example), so he’s a critical point of departure for neuroanthropology.

Although I admire Lévi-Strauss, and I’m perfectly content to be considered close classificatory kin to cognitive anthropology, there are some characteristics of Lévi-Strauss’s thought, structuralism (the theoretical school Lévi-Strauss dominated, but which did not encompass all of his work [see Doja 2008]), and contemporary cognitive anthropology with which I fundamentally disagree. So although this post is written in respect, it has elements of opposition, perhaps even the false binarism that arises whenever one is trying to highlight distinctiveness in the midst of significant overlap. Beware the theoretical belligerence of small difference!
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Gravlee et al: Race, Genetics, Social Inequality, and Health

Color SES SBP
Clarence Gravlee, Amy Non and Connie Mulligan have just published an outstanding article in PLoS ONE, Genetic Ancestry, Social Classification, and Racial Inequalities in Blood Pressure in Southeastern Puerto Rico. The abstract opens:

The role of race in human genetics and biomedical research is among the most contested issues in science. Much debate centers on the relative importance of genetic versus sociocultural factors in explaining racial inequalities in health. However, few studies integrate genetic and sociocultural data to test competing explanations directly.

Note how that fits so well into the points just made in Nature/Nurture: Slash to the Rescue. But Gravlee, Non and Mulligan don’t just say we need to overcome the nature vs. nurture dichotomy, they do research that bridges it and even better, test ideas on both sides: “We draw on ethnographic, epidemiologic, and genetic data collected in southeastern Puerto Rico to isolate two distinct variables for which race is often used as a proxy: genetic ancestry versus social classification.”

This type of collaborative research can be crucial to getting the data to answer complicated questions. Connie Mulligan and Lance Gravlee deserve credit for taking the time to discuss how to bring together their respective approaches before going out to do research. In this case, the data come down more on the nurture (or social) side. As they write:

Our preliminary results provide the most direct evidence to date that previously reported associations between genetic ancestry and health may be attributable to sociocultural factors related to race and racism, rather than to functional genetic differences between racially defined groups.

Before someone gets all hot and bothered, Lance has also shown how to bring nurture back to nature. In Gravlee’s recent paper, How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality (pdf), he gives us following: “Drawing on recent developments in neighboring disciplines, I present a model for explaining how racial inequality becomes embodied – literally – in the biological well-being of racialized groups and individuals. This model requires a shift in the way we articulate the critique of race as bad biology.”

In the PLoS paper, Lance, Amy and Connie are aiming squarely at the use of race in medicine, where it has become common in some circles to use racial classification as a proxy for genetics. Basically this research destroys the proxy notion, since social classification turns out to be a better predictor of blood pressure than genetic ancestry.

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Who you callin’ a ‘neuroconstructivist’?!

brain_construction1Intellectual labels are always a tricky business, necessary for talking about ideas and suggesting that a theorist is in a particular ideological neighborhood. Yet, they can drag along so much baggage that they become self-defeating, evoking instant resistance or inevitable misinterpretation if poorly used. In the best of cases, they can help to create a clear identity for innovative work in an academic field, speeding the effort to carve out a space for ideas in a cluttered terrain of thought. Deployed well, they can help to clarify and orient us; applied clumsily, they become intellectual invective, prematurely close off discussion or debate, and substitute labeling for thinking.

Today, I want to write briefly about ‘neuroanthropology’ as a badge, but spend more time on ‘neuroconstructivism,’ as it’s a term that sometimes gets associated with the sort of research and thinking that we are advocating here at Neuroanthropology.net. In a sense, this piece is written for non-anthropologists, to help them understand why they might get a really strange reaction from an anthropologist colleague if they start talking excitedly about new ‘neuroconstructivist’ perspectives.

We’ve obviously decided that ‘neuroanthropology’ is one of the labels that we find helpful. We stand by the neologism, even though some of our readers have described our choice of terms ‘deplorable,’ and we’ve sometimes had to struggle against the term’s use elsewhere. For example, Oliver Sachs, the wonderful chronicler of the lived worlds of people with severe brain lesions, often calls himself a ‘neuroanthropologist,’ as Jovan Maud at Culture Matters pointed out to me and Daniel highlights in a recent, more thorough post on the relation of what we’re doing to what Sachs has done (see also Neuroanthropology).

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Disparity, Disorder, and Diversity

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Robert Sampson has just published Disparity and diversity in the contemporary city: social (dis)order revisited in the British Journal of Sociology (BJS). It comes out of the annual BJS lecture that Sampson had the honor to give last fall. This paper focuses on both objective and subjective disorder, in particular highlighting the importance of subjective disorder for understanding the impact of disparity.

In his paper Sampson is basically taking on the Broken Windows approach to disorder, that visible and quite real signs of disorder encourage people to engage in criminal and other deviant acts. In one sense, Sampson wants to bring Durkheim back into the picture, that anomie – or a spirit or sense of disorder – is also vital to sociology.

As he says, “My general thesis is that perceptions of disorder constitute a fundamental dimension of social inequality at the neighborhood level and perhaps beyond… I argue that the grounds on which perceptions of disorder are formed are contextually shaped by social conditions that go well beyond the usual suspects of observed disorder and poverty, a process that in turn molds reputations, reinforces stigma and influences the future trajectory of an area (6).”

Sampson brings an intriguing mix of photoethnography, historical and theoretical analysis, and quantitative data from Chicago. His main thrust is to say that “because the link between cues of disorder and perception is socially mediated, it is malleable and thus subject to change.” He wants to get away from a mono-causal view of disorder to an understanding of disorder as something more complex and interactive, as these two contrasting figures from his paper show.

sampson-disorder-as-cause

sampson-perceiving-disorder

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