New project in evolutionary theory and cultural anthropology

As a cultural anthropologist, I am thrilled that cultural variation is increasingly recognized as significant in a wide range of fields, cognitive science, psychology, and evolutionary theory among them. From our discipline’s long, rich history of exploring human creativity and adaptability, what advice can I offer my colleagues from other disciplines eager to consider human variation? What valuable conceptual resources can cultural anthropologists share? How do we translate the lessons of over a century of research — including periods of bitter disciplinary self-critique and external criticism — into actionable, testable models for human variation?

We are starting a major new project that explores precisely this: how do we distill insights from cultural anthropology and anthropology more broadly into models of human variation useful for theorizing about human evolution. Agustín Fuentes of Princeton University and I at Macquarie University (Sydney), with an amazing multi-institution, multi-national team, secured a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study, as the title of the application put it, “Concepts in Dynamic Assemblages: Cultural Evolution and the Human Way of Being.”

The team is so large I will not try to list everyone in it (and we are still recruiting), but also heavily involved are Jennifer French (U. of Liverpool), Jeffrey Himpele (Princeton U.), Marc Kissel (Appalachian State U.), and Carolyn Rouse (Princeton U.). At Macquarie University, our team includes John Sutton (emeritus, Cognitive Science) and Alex Gillett (Philosophy). In addition, our Macquarie based team will include two post-doctoral fellows, two doctoral students, and other folks. The doctoral scholarships are already being advertised here.

The project is bold but is also likely to look a little odd to some of my colleagues in cultural anthropology, maybe even to some people who might be good additions to the team. This post attempts to share why I got involved with “Concepts in Dynamic Assemblage” as a cultural-psychological researcher and neuroanthropologist including what we mean by “dynamic assemblage” and why we chose “concepts” as the pivot point. These motivations and ideas are my own, and other team members no doubt have vastly different goals and working theories, but sharing this might help someone considering whether to apply for a post-doctoral position or doctoral scholarship or deciding if they want to follow this project.

The topic arises in part because I have long been dissatisfied that how cultural anthropologists talk about “culture” seems to limit our influence on other researchers. The term is notoriously tricky, and you would be forgiven at times for thinking the concept is simply incoherent (spoiler alert: I think it is). I feel like anthropologists are not doing a great job of helping others to study human variation, and “culture,” including its multiple and contradictory definitions, is part of the problem. Sometimes, anthropologists use overly technical, self-critical, politicized, and deconstructionist approaches that limit our ability to collaborate with other scientists, researchers, and scholars. Sometimes we use “culture” as shorthand for what is really a heavily idealist theory of human variation (as I argued in Downey 2021).

It feels often like, now that more researchers are interested in cultural variation, cultural anthropologists have more sophisticated critical techniques than constructive models to offer, more political concerns than testable hypotheses are actionable strategies to do research about that diversity.

In evolutionary theory, many models of culture these scientists resort to — especially treating culture as “information” shared by every member of a group — echo approaches that cultural anthropologists and other social theorists proposed starting at least a in the middle of the 20th century. They were tested and found inadequate for multiple reasons. If cultural anthropologists fail to articulate an alternative model, then we’re likely to see cultural theories that recapitulate the errors our discipline has made get trotted out and, yet again, collapse when found inadequate.

Ironically, one reason that cultural variation is important in evolutionary theory is that biologists are rethinking, sometimes in dramatic ways, overly reductionist approaches in biology. They are questioning accounts of organisms, inheritance, and natural selection central to the modern synthesis. Biologists, ecologists, and evolutionary theorists are engaged in exciting debates about the significance of epigenetic mechanisms, environmental inheritance, genetic drift, phenotypic plasticity, and interactions between developmental and evolutionary change. The same reductionist ideas that caused an enormous rift between biological and cultural approaches to humanity — the idea that life could be usefully reduced to contests among “replicators” or developmental biology ignored — are under sustained critique. These strategies contributed to the internecine “biology-culture wars” in anthropology that undermined the field’s holistic tradition, split departments, and made biocultural work anathema to many in the field. Genetic reductionism, one of the great old villains in anthropology’s biology-culture wars, is less and less the unifying banner of evolution-based sciences.

But just as biologists are better appreciating the complexity and multi-level dynamics at play in organismal-developmental biology and evolutionary dynamics, however, some are embracing a simplistic model of culture as “shared information.” The definition is an odd form of “cultural reductionism.” The result is ironic from my perspective: intra-organism systems are modeled in much richer ways than social systems, the embedding of humans in technology, or intragenerational accumulation of learning. Not only are cultural processes radically simplified, but they are sealed off from biology. Just as an outdated model of evolution held that biological processes could be reduced to “information in the genes,” this already-obsolete model of “culture” assumes it can be safely considered “information in the head.”

And to make the whole process even weirder, some cultural anthropologists seem fine with this model of culture as a shared mental furniture – whether it’s a “cultural imaginary” or “symbolic systems” or “semiotic structure” or some other version. Some seem happy to line up across an artificial divide, cultural constructionists on one side, genetic reductionists on the other, and fight like hell for decades, but seldom considering whether drawing this battleline is fundamental to the problem. One problem with “dual inheritance” models of evolution is that they take this intellectual division of labor and enshrine it as a foundational theoretical principle. It’s convenient but erases those processes I’m most interested in, the ones that lead to influences across the divide between biology and culture.

We need a model of cultural variation as sophisticated as emerging models of organismal biology in evolutionary theory. Ironically, treating culture as just mental information underestimates the potential power of variation in our ways of life to shape people.

Skill acquisition and cultural learning as a case study

Throughout my career, the study of skill acquisition and sensory learning have constantly pushed me to the boundary zone between the “biological” and “cultural.” In skill acquisition, behavior patterns, cultural regimes of training, and systematic work on the body changes people, not just in terms of habits or capabilities, but even physiology and neurology. At some point, Daniel Lende (U of South Florida) and I put it that plasticity in the nervous system and body means that what is culture at one point can become biological over developmental time, especially when it is repeated practice, deeply embedded in social structures (see Lende and Downey 2012). In a few articles, I have argued that skills – so central to human capacities and cultural variation – cannot be understood as mental “information” because they also involve neurological, muscular, motor, and even skeletal change (e.g., Downey 2010). If we are going to talk about the evolutionary importance of culture, I say, consider that culture can modify our biology in many ways: I’m fascinated by the mechanisms that make this possible.

Agustín contacted me and others with as idea to do a project on the evolutionary impact of “concepts”: how did the capacity to conceptualize alter the terms of evolution. The more I reflected on his idea, the more it resonated with conversations I have been having for a long time about skill. At Macquarie University, the philosopher John Sutton, who has written extensively on the cognitive science of memory and skill, founded a “cognitive ecology” reading and research group, one of the most exciting intellectual communities I have been part of in my career. These conversations have variously included John, Kath Bicknell, Sara Kim Hjortborg, McArthur Mignon, Alex Gillett, Samuel Jones, Wayne Cristensen, and Sarah Pini and Line Maria Simonsen (now both at U. of Southern Denmark).

For John, Wayne, and some of the others, drawing on theorists like anthropologist Edwin Hutchins (2010) and philosopher Andy Clark, they have been pushing back against a model of skilled action as being highly automated and “mindless,” a view often linked to Herbert Dreyfus. John, both solo and with his collaborators like Wayne and Kath and the late Doris McIlwain, have written about “instructional nudges,” condensed instructions that athletes and other actors repeat to themselves to help with performance (an idea that comes also from David Sudnow; see Sutton 2007). They have proposed a “mesh theory” of skilled action that finds a central role for higher order thinking, including conceptual thought, in skillful action (see Cristensen, Sutton, and McIlwain 2012).

My own beef is not so much with Dreyfus or other philosophers’ theories of “mindless” skilful action as with the problem so much theory in cultural anthropology neglects psychological or bodily dynamics. Some cultural anthropologists assume that talking about public “culture” fulfills the need to think about mental, cognitive, or psychological life, ignoring how individuals become encultured. It’s the Metonymic Culture Fallacy: since every individual has the culture in them, we can just substitute a discussion of the public debates or conversations for inner life. Phrases like “embodied culture” or “habitus” or “subjectification” frequently stand in as metaphors that remove the need to think concretely about the mechanisms through which our lifeways, childrearing, training, and cultural conditioning shape our senses, bodies, and neuropsychology. In anthropology, my approach is inspired, not just by Daniel Lende, but also by Tim Ingold (esp. 2000), Margaret Lock and Patricia Kaufert (2001), Gísli Pálsson (2016), Lance Gravlee (2009), Rebecca Seligman (2014), and others too numerous to cite (but see also Ingold and Pálsson 2013!). These researchers all argue that we should show these mechanisms that efface the boundary between biology and culture, including some case studies that have shaped my thinking.

The reason we have argued for a “dynamic assemblage” approach is that our strong suspicion is that concepts enter people’s lives and are not stable. An “instructional nudge” for example, might first seem alien, weird, or incomprehensible but, over time, can transform into an internalized mantra and eventually influence over how someone responds neurophysiologically, a process I touched on in a book chapter I wrote on how free divers change their perceptions of bodily distress as they hold their breaths longer and longer (Downey 2022). To try to define “concept” too rigidly then might conceal how concepts are taken up in people’s lives, in a developmental timeframe, but also how they change historically within a group. For example, an academic idea in a specialist community — like the concept of “race” in natural history — might be disseminated, institutionalized on a massive scale, incorporated into political ideologies and popular mobilization, and eventually come to shape even subconscious psychological reactions and bias across large parts of a population.

I suggested the term “assemblage” (and I’m still ambivalent about it) because I wanted to capture some of the potency that certain concepts have, how they recruit other resources. When a concept is effective in skill acquisition, for example, it influences individuals, not just through learning it overtly. A potent concept is also instantiated through physical practices, habits, material culture, social interaction, and emotional commitments. As a concept is integrated into a group’s or individual’s cultural repertoire, it may have unintended effects; even as it becomes obsolete or falls into disuse, it can have long-standing consequences.

One example I use when people ask me to explain this is the concept “children are fragile”: depending on how strong that concept is in a group, it can affect how children are cared for, how resources are allocated, what kinds of social groups they may have, their learning experiences, and a host of other factors (my thinking on this case is shaped in part by the work of Esther Thelen as well as Elinor Ochs and her collaborators at UCLA). “Children are fragile” can cause outcomes as diverse as shifts in bone density and developmental milestones in motor development (children who are handled more gingerly walk later, for example). This example is just one that shows how some potent concepts can organize other elements – social, material, behavioral, political – to produce powerful effects, even biological changes to our species (see also Downey 2016).

Our team at Macquarie will be focused on using ethnography – especially “microethnography” or digitally-enhanced close analysis of concepts in use – to explore how concepts work. We are choosing activities for ethnographic scrutiny that have direct implications for fundamental human abilities relevant to our species evolution: bodily skill, sensory learning, wayfinding, executive function, and social skills. We do not have ambitions to study every concept or all of culture, but rather understand how the capacity to conceptualize shifts fundamental abilities in ways that may require us to reconsider models like “dual inheritance” theory, that is, models we can safely treat “culture” as distinct and separate from our “biologically determined” capabilities. We are open to new case studies in areas we haven’t yet considered, places where concepts are doing work, such as helping people to acquire skills, change their experiences, or alter the way that they are perceiving.

I hope that we can also help to make the concerns and insights of cultural anthropology more relevant and accessible to other fields interested in human variation. The resources available from cultural research in anthropology are staggering, but I think we need to do more translational work and intellectual outreach to persuade our colleagues in other fields, not just that they should care about human variation, but also that we have intellectual resources to assist them to do so.


Christensen, Wayne, John Sutton, and Doris J.F. McIlwain. 2016. “Cognition in Skilled Action: Meshed Control and the Varieties of Skill Experience.” Mind & Language 31 (1): 37-66.

Downey, Greg. 2010. “‘Practice without Theory’: A Neuroanthropological Perspective on Embodied Learning.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (incorporating Man) 16(s1): S22-S40.

Downey, Greg. 2016. “Being Human in Cities: Phenotypic Bias from Urban Niche Construction.’ Current Anthropology 57(S13): S52-S64.

Downey, Greg. 2021. “Echolocation among the Blind: An Argument for an Ontogenetic Turn.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (incorporating Man) 27(4): 832-849.

Downey, Greg. 2022. “Not Breathing Together: The Collaborative Development of Expert Apnea.’ In Collaborative Embodied Presence: Ecologies of Skill. John Sutton and Katherine Bicknell (eds.), pp. 93-108. Bloomsbury.

Gravlee, Clarence C. 2009. “How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139(1): 47-57.

Hutchins, Edwin. 2010. “Cognitive Ecology.” Topics in Cognitive Science 2: 705-715.

Ingold, Tim. 2000. Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill. London: Routledge.

Ingold, Tim, and Gísli Pálsson, eds. 2013. Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lende, Daniel H., and Greg Downey, eds. 2012. The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology, MIT Press.

Lock, Margaret, and Patricia Kaufert. 2001. “Menopause, Local Biologies and Cultures of Aging.” American Journal of Human Biology 13(4): 494—504.

Pálsson, Gísli. 2016. “Unstable Bodies: Biosocial Perspectives on Human Variation.”The Sociological Review Monographs 64(1): 100—116.

Seligman, Rebecca. 2014. Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves: Embodiment and Transformation in an Afro-Brazilian Religion. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan. 

Sutton, John 2007. “Batting, Habit and Memory: The Embodied Mind and the Nature of Skill.” Sport in Society 10 (5): 763-86.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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