Cultural Evolution Round Up

I have not been the biggest fan of cultural evolution research—treating culture in too biological a fashion, a lot of theory without a lot of mechanism, not enough consideration of the brain, difficulties with ideas about progress and direction. But the field has slowly advanced, and there has been some interesting blogging and research lately.

I also think cultural evolution, done right, has direct implications for how to think about neuroanthropology. If brain and culture interact (with camping caveats), then how they came to interact plays a central role in understanding neuroanthropological dynamics. So, with that brief introduction, here’s the latest topical round up.

Canoe Design

Deborah Rogers and Paul Ehrlich, Natural Selection and Cultural Rates of Change
Open access article from PNAS on how the functional and aesthetic design of Polynesian canoes change at different rates. Basically Rogers & Ehrlich arguing that the functional parts (i.e., that interact more significantly with the environment) go through stabilizing selection and thus are more conserved, while aesthetic aspects tend to get elaborated locally and exhibit faster rates of change.

For those of you looking for something briefer, here’s the overview in the press release, which also includes praise from Jared Diamond and Nina Jablonksi.

John Skoyles had his critical response published in PNAS, but without open access, so here’s Anthropology.Net discussing Skoyles’ reaction to the Rogers & Ehrlich article.

For additional commentary, see Gene Expression and Anthropology.Net’s initial reaction to proposals about canoe design and natural selection.

And don’t forget Malinowski’s original chapter on Polynesian canoes!

Projectile Points

R. Lee Lyman and colleagues have a Journal of Archaeological Science article entitled “Variation in North American dart points and arrow points when one or both are present.”
The paper argues that projectile points are subjected to experimentation and selection, and thus an optimizing design. For the press release, click here.

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Michael Wesch and Media Literacy

Michael Wesch is an anthropologist who focuses on digital ethnography, student learning, and how new media and technology are changing the way we interact with each other and the world. He has a new lecture covering Media Literacy, an hour from a “master teacher” as one review says. So enjoy:

The hattip goes to Savage Minds. For more on Wesch, we featured his two most famous videos back in April in Digital Ethnography. He also has his own YouTube channel now and an academic website Mediated Cultures covering his and his students’ work. Wired even gave him a Rave Award in 2007, supplemented by lots of video snippets from him talking with Wired.

Laura’s Weight Loss

Laura over at her psychology blog discusses her own successful weight loss (plus a big on-going study). She also linked back to an April post on successful weight loss I had when my med anthro class and I were examining obesity (for more posts, check our food and eating category). She highlights one of my main points with that essay, the American fixation on self-control and will-power as both pragmatically and philosophically problematic for going about weight loss.

As I put it, “So ‘willpower’ is not the answer, at least as conceived as an intrinsic and internal property of the individual.”

But obviously behavior does matter, linking internal and external dynamics together: “our behavior takes place within specific contexts, relationships, and symbolic meanings. It is also linked to subjective experience, available opportunities, bodily function, and the ongoing interpretation of our memories.”

Laura gives a great example of this (and congratulations too, on what you’ve accomplished): “What I have found useful is to take the decision-making out of my hands. I follow the Jenny Craig maintenance program, and that’s it. No variations, except for special occasions, like Mr. F’s chocolate cheesecake, and that happens no more than once a week.”

We humans are cultural creatures, much more than we are free will creatures. We are also emotional creatures, so major life events can provoke major change (a major health problem is frequently a main factor in successful weight loss, in reframing everyday life so doing “what it takes” suddenly makes sense). And of course we are decision making creatures, with conscious awareness and all that.

But I wonder, if our society put as much effort into developing our cultural and emotional ways of being, and not just our conscious and technological ways of being, would we have so many behavioral health problems in the first place?

The Cultural Brain in Five Flavors

By Daniel Lende

Next week is the Critical Neurosciences workshop, where I will help lead a discussion of the cultural brain. So I better figure out what I want to say!

Thinking about it yesterday, I came up with this. Rather than one “cultural brain” and lots of arguing about what that means, I will argue that we have five distinct varieties of the cultural brain to consider.

Each flavor deals with a different sort of problem at the intersection of human culture and neuroscience. I will outline these different intersections below, and provide links to our posts to give further depth.

Here are our five flavors:

-The Symbolic Brain: Culture, meaning and the brain combined
-The Inequality Brain: Bad outcomes through society, power, and the brain
-The Theory Brain: Neuroscience impacts social science theory
-The Brain Transformed: Social science impacts brain theory
-The Critical Brain: Taking down bad brain justifications and examining the cultural uses of the brain

The Symbolic Brain

The symbolic brain represents the increasing convergence of work in anthropology and in neuroscience on questions of meaning, symbolism, subjective experience, and behavior. To take an example from my own work, understanding compulsive drug use has required that I examine how processes of attention and behavioral involvement are altered by consistent drug use and how people interpret their own use, from the reasons they had to use to what the experience of use represents to them.

In many ways, this work focuses on a central problem raised but not resolved by Clifford Geertz when he wrote that we should treat human behavior as “symbolic action—action, which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies (1973: 9).” Today, rather than reducing that significance to either a cultural pattern or a brain function (both determinist approaches), people interested in the cultural brain are looking for synergies between different domains of research.

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The Everyday Brain and Our Everyday Life

Earlier this week I wrote about Jean-Pierre Changeux and Gerald Edelman, drawing on the New York Review of Books essay by Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff, How The Mind Works: Revelations. As I blogged then, “In the end I was still left with a ‘So what?’ Their hints at subjective psychology, the acting brain, and relational representation remained the side dishes, rather than the main course. I’ll deal with that main course later this week.” It’s Saturday, so I better keep to that promise.

Let me begin by just giving you the essay excerpts.

In general, every recollection refers not only to the remembered event or person or object but to the person who is remembering. The very essence of memory is subjective, not mechanical, reproduction; and essential to that subjective psychology is that every remembered image of a person, place, idea or object invariably contains, whether explicitly or implicitly, a basic reference to the person who is remembering.

The “rigid divide,” [Giacomo] Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia write in their new book, Mirrors in the Brain, “between perceptive, motor, and cognitive processes, is to a great extent artificial; not only does perception appear to be embedded in the dynamics of action, becoming much more composite than used to be thought in the past, but the acting brain is also and above all a brain that understands.”

For Edelman, then, memory is not a “small scale model of external reality,” but a dynamic process that enables us to repeat a mental or physical act: the key conclusion is that whatever its form, memory itself is a [property of a system]. It cannot be equated exclusively with circuitry, with synaptic changes, with biochemistry, with value constraints, or with behavioral dynamics. Instead, it is the dynamic result of the interactions of all these factors acting together.

Together, subjective psychology, an acting and embedded brain, and representation and action that are dynamic and relational present us with a new starting point when we talk about the intersections of neuroscience and psychology with anthropology. Starting with their conclusions, making it the beginning of something better, that would have been a really exciting essay for me to read.

As I wrote a couple days ago, Howard Gardner does get us closer to this new individuality. “Gardner brings a refreshingly unique take, neither the individual of science, bounded and rational, or the individual of philosophy and art, lone thinker and creative genius. Nervous system, individual experience, and subjective interpretation move us into a radically different domain—an individuality that lies firmly in the continua Gardner describes.”

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We hate memes, pass it on…

Vaughn at Mind Hacks has a short post, Memes exist: tell your friends (clever, Vaughn, very clever), which links to a couple of meme-related talks at TED. Daniel linked to a lot of the TED talks back in April (TED: Ideas Worth Spreading), but Vaughn focuses on videos of Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore, both of whom are ardent meme advocates.

I’ve watched both talks, more than a half hour of my finite lifespan that I will never get back (okay, I’ve wasted part of my finite life doing worse… I think), so I need to unburden myself. I think ‘memetics’ is one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades, hiding in the shadow of respectable evolutionary theory, suggesting that anyone who doesn’t immediately concede to the ‘awesome-ness’ of meme-ness is somehow afraid of evolutionary theory. Let me just make this perfectly clear: I teach about evolutionary theory. I like Charles Darwin. I have casts of hominid skulls in my office. I still think ‘memetics’ is nonsense on stilts on skates on thin ice on borrowed time (apologies to Bentham), as deserving of the designation ‘science’ as astrology, phrenology, or economic forecasting.

What’s hard for me to understand is that I LIKE some of Daniel Dennett’s work, and I can’t cite Dennett’s other work confidently when he has picked up a ‘meme franchise,’ and is plugging away with the ‘meme’ meme, making it appear that I’m down with this later material. Blackmore, on the other hand, is a reformed para-psychologist, so she’s, at worst, made a lateral move in terms of respectability. I get particularly irritated during her talk because I think she does an enormous disservice to Darwin’s Origin of Species, but I will try not to late my irritation show too much (even though our regular readers know I won’t be able to manage). I wasn’t going to really heap scorn on Blackmore until I read her own account of TED on the Guardian’s website; gloves are now off.

But I digress, back to the content of the concept and Vaughn’s comments…

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