In praise of partial explanation (and flowcharts)

Created by RPM at Evolgen

Created by RPM at Evolgen

During our panel at the American Anthropology Association last year, Prof. Naomi Quinn warned that ‘a flowchart is not a theory.’ She stressed the limits to the explanatory power of a simple diagram; her skepticism, of course, is entirely warranted.

But since I was one of the prime offenders with the explanatory flowchart, and I seem to be using them more and more, I wanted to offer a stalwart defense of the use of flowcharts and diagramming in neuroanthropology, especially as both contribute to the practice of partial explanation. So, to pick up a theme from a number of my posts, ‘yes-you’re-right-but-I-still-disagree,’ here’s why I find flowcharts particularly useful and think anthropologists should be doing a lot more diagramming to highlight complex patterns of causation, situating more broadly the parts of complex systems that they are exploring.

But before I go any further, I need to direct all our readers to the recent announcement of the first Neuroanthropology conference which Daniel posted. Although I want to post, I feel like I also want to keep drawing attention to this announcement. But on with it…

As with all of her comments, I felt that Prof. Quinn cut to the quick, highlighting an issue in a cautionary fashion rather than rejecting specific arguments our panelists were making (at least I don’t think she was just calling me out…). In the case of flowcharts, Prof. Quinn suggested that diagramming relationships was a preliminary step, not a final goal – at least that’s one of the ways that I took her comments – and I agree.

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Andy Clark & Michael Wheeler: Embodied cognition and cultural evolution

The Cognition and Culture website has posted a link to the new edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on ‘cultural transmission and evolution of human behaviour.’ I wanted to comment on just one piece on embodied cognition and cultural evolution, by philosophers Michael Wheeler and Andy Clark (unfortunately, Philosophical Transactions B is behind a subscription wall, although there’s a one-page ‘free preview’ [ouch] here). The Cognition and Culture website has the table of contents posted here. I was vaguely familiar with Michael Wheeler’s work before this piece, but Andy Clark (it’s not much of a profile) has written some of the work that’s most influenced my thinking about the effects of varied skill acquisition on cognition, especially his remarkable book, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again (Amazon listing).

A ream of Clark’s papers can be found here. A review of Michael Wheeler’s book, Reconstructing the cognitive world: The next step, written by Leslie Marsh can be downloaded here. We’ll come back to Andy Clark’s work again in later posts.

I must admit a certain morbid fascination with how one of my favorite streams of thought — embodied cognition — would fare combined with cultural evolution — an area of scholarship that, well, to put it nicely, is uneven (before you get all defensive, let me just stop you with one word: mimetics). It’s sort of like watching one of your good friends get hit on by a sleazy guy at a bar. She looks happy, but you’re sort of cringing at the chance that she might actually take him home. In spite of this instinctual cringe, this special edition of Philosophical Transactions has some really interesting work on cultural evolution, especially because many of the pieces focus tightly on the enormously problematic issue of cultural transmission.

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