I blog at ICCI

Nicolas Claidière, Thom Scott-Phillips, Dan Sperber. (2014) How Darwinian is cultural evolution? In Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 369: 20130368.

Abstract: Darwin-inspired population thinking suggests approaching culture as a population of items of different types, whose relative frequencies may change over time. Three nested subtypes of populational models can be distinguished: evolutionary, selectional and replicative. … we describe cultural evolution in terms of cultural attraction, which is populational and evolutionary, but only selectional under certain circumstances. …

Dezecache G., Conty L., Philip L., Chadwick M., Soussignan R., Sperber D. & Grèzes J. (2013). Evidence for unintentional emotional contagion beyond dyads. PLoS ONE, 8(6):e67371.

Abstract: Little is known about the spread of emotions beyond dyads. Yet, it is of importance for explaining the emergence of crowd behaviors. Here, we experimentally addressed whether emotional homogeneity within a crowd might result from a cascade of local emotional transmissions where the perception of another’s emotional expression produces, in the observer’s face and body, sufficient information to allow for the transmission of the emotion to a third party. … [Our] findings demonstrate that one is tuned to react to others’ emotional signals and to unintentionally produce subtle but sufficient emotional cues to induce emotional states in others…

Dan Sperber (2013) Speakers are honest because hearers are vigilant: Reply to Kourken Michaelian. In Episteme, 10, 1, 61–71

Abstract: In “The evolution of testimony: Receiver vigilance, speaker honesty, and the reliability of communication,” Kourken Michaelian questions the basic tenets of our article “Epistemic vigilance” (Sperber et al. 2010). Here I defend against Michaelian’s criticisms the view that epistemic vigilance plays a major role in explaining the evolutionary stability of communication and that the honesty of speakers and the reliability of their testimony are, to a large extent, an effect of hearers’ vigilance.

Nicolas Baumard, Jean-Baptiste André & Dan Sperber (2013) A Mutualistic Approach to Morality: The evolution of fairness by partner choice. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36, 59–122. with Commentaries and our Response: Partner choice, fairness, and the extension of morality. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 36, 102–122

Abstract: What makes humans moral beings? This question can be understood either as a proximate ‘how’ question or as an ultimate ‘why’ question. The ‘how’ question is about the mental and social mechanisms that produce moral judgments and interactions, and has been investigated by psychologists and social scientists. The ‘why’ question is about the fitness consequences that explain why humans have morality, and has been discussed by evolutionary biologists in the context of the evolution of cooperation. Our goal here is to contribute to a fruitful articulation of such proximate and ultimate explanations of human morality. We do so by developing an approach focusing on recent developments in the study of mutualistic forms of cooperation and on their relevance to fairness-based morality.

Dan Sperber & Nicolas Baumard. (2012), Moral Reputation: An Evolutionary and Cognitive Perspective. Mind & Language, 27 (5). 485-518

Abstract: From an evolutionary point of view, the function of moral behaviour may be to secure a good reputation as a co-operator.  The best way to do so may be to obey genuine moral motivations. Still, one’s moral reputation maybe something too important to be entrusted just to one’s moral sense. A robust concern for one’s reputation is likely to have evolved too. Here we explore some of the complex relationships between morality and reputation both from an evolutionary and a cognitive point of view.

Dan Sperber & Hugo Mercier (2012) Reasoning as a Social Competence. In Hélène Landemore & Jon Elster (Eds.) Collective Wisdom: Principles and Mechanisms Cambridge UP. 368-392

“…We argue that the function of reasoning is primarily social and that it is the individual benefits that are side-effects. The function of reasoning is to produce arguments in order to convince others and to evaluate arguments others use in order to convince us. We will show how this view of reasoning as a form of social competence correctly predicts both good and bad performance in the individual and in the collective case, and helps explain a variety of psychological and sociological phenomena…”

Dan Sperber. 2012. Cultural Attractors. In In John Brockman (ed.) This Will Make You Smarter. pp. 180-183

A short and popular presentation of the notion of  ‘cultural attractor’.

Dan Sperber.2011. A naturalistic ontology for mechanistic explanations in the social sciences. In Pierre Demeulenaere (ed.) Analytical sociology and social mechanisms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). 64-77.

“.. I argue that “1) A naturalisation of the domain of the social sciences is made possible by the ongoing naturalisation of psychology. 2) The ontology of a naturalised social science is a composite ontology, articulating naturalistic description of mental and environmental events. 3) Precisely because, on this view, naturalised social sciences borrow the ingredients of their ontology from several different disciplines, their concepts and theories cannot be reduced to the concepts or theories of any one of these disciplines. 4) The way in which naturalised social sciences renounce ontological autonomy secures their theoretical autonomy. In other terms, I am arguing for an ontological reduction without theoretical reduction…”

Dan Sperber, Anne Coubray et Yann Schmitt (2011) Entretien avec Dan Sperber: Naturalisme, sciences cognitives et religion. Revue en ligne ThéoRèmes mis en ligne le 06 février 2011. URL : http://theoremes.revues.org/153

Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber. 2011. Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory Behavioural and Brain Sciences. 34, 57–111 UPDATED: with Commentaries and our Response: Argumentation: Its adaptiveness and efficiency. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 34 (2): 94-111

Abstract: Reasoning is generally seen as a mean to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Much evidence, however, shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests rethinking the function of reasoning. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given human exceptional dependence on communication and vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology or reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis.

Dan Sperber. 2010. The Guru Effect. Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1 (4):583-592. (Updated version of 2005 manuscript)

Abstract: Obscurity of expression is considered a flaw. Not so, however, in the speech or writing of intellectual gurus. All too often, what readers do is judge profound what they have failed to grasp. Here I try to explain this “ guru effect ” by looking at the psychology of trust and interpretation, at the role of authority and argumentation, and at the effects of these dispositions and processes when they operate at a population level where, I argue, a runaway phenomenon of overappreciation may take place.

Dan Sperber, Fabrice Clément, Christophe Heintz, Olivier Mascaro, Hugo Mercier, Gloria Origgi & Deirdre Wilson. 2010. Epistemic Vigilance. Mind & Language. 25-4: 359–393

Abstract: Humans depend massively on communication with others, but this leaves them open to the risk of being accidentally or intentionally misinformed. We claim that humans have a suite of cognitive mechanisms for epistemic vigilance to ensure that communication remains advantageous despite this risk. Here we outline this claim and consider some of the ways in which epistemic vigilance works in mental and social life by surveying issues, research and theories in different domains of philosophy, linguistics, cognitive psychology and the social sciences.

Nicolas Baumard & Dan Sperber. 2010. Weird people, yes but also weird experiments? (Commentary on: Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, Ara Norenzayan (2010) The weirdest people in the world? BBS, 33, 61–135), Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33, 80-81.

Abstract: While we agree that the cultural imbalance in the recruitment of participants in psychology experiments is highly detrimental, we emphasize the need to complement this criticism with a warning about the “weirdness” of some cross-cultural studies showing seemingly deep cultural differences. We take the example of economic games and suggest that the variety of results observed in these games may not be due to deep psychological differences per se, but rather due to different interpretations of the situation.

Nicolas Baumard, Pascal Boyer, Dan Sperber. 2010. Evolution of Fairness: Cultural Variability. Science, 329, 388-9.

Letter to Science discussing: Henrich, J., Ensimger, J., McElreath, R., Barr, A., Barrett, C., Bolyanatz, A., Cardenas, J. C., Gurven, M., Gwako, E., Henrich, N., Lesorogol, C., Marlowe, F., Tracer, D., Ziker, J. (2010) Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment. Science, 327, 1480-1484.

Nicolas Claidière and Dan Sperber. 2010. The natural selection of fidelity in social learning. Communicative & Integrative Biology. 3:4, 1-2; July/August 2010.

Abstract: Social learning mechanisms are usually assumed to explain both the spread and the persistence of cultural behaviour. In a recent article, we showed that the fidelity of social learning commonly found in transmission chain experiments is not high enough to explain cultural stability. Here we want to both enrich and qualify this conclusion by looking at the case of song transmission in song birds, which can be faithful to the point of being true replication. We argue that this high fidelity results from natural selection pressure on cognitive mechanisms. This observation strengthens our main argument. Social learning mechanisms are unlikely to be faithful enough to explain cultural stability because they are generally selected not for high fidelity but for generalisation and adjustment to the individual’s needs, capacities and situation.

Nicolas Claidière & Dan Sperber. 2010. Imitation explains the propagation, not the stability of animal culture. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 277(1681): 651-659.

Abstract: For acquired behaviour to count as cultural, two conditions must be met: it must propagate in a social group, and it must remain stable across generations in the process of propagation. It is commonly assumed that imitation is the mechanism that explains both the spread of animal culture and its stability. We review the literature on transmission chain studies in chimpanzees and other animals, and we use a formal model to argue that imitation, which may well play a major role in the propagation of animal culture, cannot be considered faithful enough to explain its stability. We consider the contribution that other psychological and ecological factors might make to the stability of animal culture observed in the wild.

Nicolas Baumard & Dan Sperber. 2010. Délit de Solidarité: qu’en disent les psychologues. Cerveau et Psycho. 37, Janvier 2010.

Point de vue sur l’article L622-1 du “Code de l’entrée et du séjour des étrangers” : « Toute personne qui aura, par aide directe ou indirecte, facilité ou tenté de faciliter l’entrée, la circulation ou le séjour irrégulier d’un étranger en France sera punie d’un emprisonnement de cinq ans et d’une amende de 30 000 euros »

Olivier Mascaro and Dan Sperber. 2009. The Moral, Epistemic, and Mindreading Components of Children’s Vigilance towards Deception Cognition112 (2009) 367–380

Abstract: Vigilance towards deception is investigated in 3- to-5-year-old children: (i) In study 1, children as young as 3 years of age prefer the testimony of a benevolent rather than of a malevolent communicator. (ii) In study 2, only at the age of four do children show understanding of the falsity of a lie uttered by a communicator described as a liar. (iii) In study 3, the ability to recognize a lie when the communicator is described as intending to deceive the child emerges around four and improves throughout the fifth and sixth year of life. On the basis of this evidence, we suggest that preference for the testimony of a benevolent communicator, understanding of the epistemic aspects of deception, and understanding of its intentional aspects are three functionally and developmentally distinct components of epistemic vigilance.

Dan Sperber. 2009. Culturally transmitted misbeliefs (Commentary on Ryan T. McKay & Daniel C. Dennett, “The evolution of misbelief”). Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32, 534-535.

Abstract: Most human beliefs are acquired through communication, and so are most misbeliefs. Just like the misbeliefs discussed by McKay & Dennett (M&D), culturally transmitted misbeliefs tend to result from limitations rather than malfunctions of the mechanisms that produce them, and few if any can be argued to be adaptations. However, the mechanisms involved, the contents, and the hypothetical adaptive value tend to be specific to the cultural case.

Dan Sperber. 2009. Allocution du Prix Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Voici l’allocution que j’ai prononcée à l’Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, le 29 juin 2009, en tant que lauréat du premier Prix Claude Lévi-Strauss (l’ensemble des discours peut être lu ici ou écouté ici)

Dan Sperber.2009. L’effet gourou. L’autre côté. 1, 17-23

(Traduction française par Nicolas Pain de “The Guru effect”, inédit de 2005.)
“Une énonciation obscure est considérée comme défectueuse. Tel n’est pas le cas pour les discours et les écrits des gourous intellectuels. Le problème n’est pas que des lecteurs manquant de compétence s’abstiennent, à raison, de porter un jugement sur ce qu’ils ne comprennent pas ; mais que trop souvent ces lecteurs jugent profond ce qui leur échappe. L’obscurité inspire le respect… Je voudrais expliquer ici cet « effet-gourou »…”

Dan Sperber & Nicolas Claidière. 2008. Defining and explaining culture (comments on Richerson and Boyd, Not by genes alone). Biology and Philosophy 23, 283-292

Abstract: We argue that there is a continuum of cases without any demarcation between more individual and more cultural information, and that therefore “culture” should be viewed as a property that human mental representations and practices exhibit to a varying degree rather than as a type or a subclass of these representations and practices (or of “information”). We discuss the relative role of preservative and constructive processes in transmission. We suggest a revision of Richerson and Boyd’s classification of the forces of cultural evolution.

Dan Sperber.2007. Rudiments d’un programme naturaliste. In Michel Wieviorka (ed.) Les Sciences Sociales en Mutation. Editions Sciences Humaines. 257-264.

“Je voudrais esquisser ici une ontologie naturaliste du social. Le naturalisme tel que je le conçois vise à unifier les sciences empiriques. Unification ne signifie pas réduction. Il s’agit plutôt d’articuler les descriptions des différents programmes de recherche et de les rendre cohérents entre eux et mutuellement pertinents…”
(A revised and updated version in English is available here)

Nicolas Claidière and Dan Sperber. 2007. The role of attraction in cultural evolution. Journal of Cognition and Culture 7, 89-111

Abstract: Henrich and Boyd (2002) were the first to propose a formal model of the role of attraction in cultural evolution. They came to the surprising conclusion that, when both attraction and selection are at work, final outcomes are determined by selection alone. Th is result is based on a determistic view of cultural attraction, different from the probabilistic view introduced in Sperber (1996). We defend this probabilistic view, show how to model it, and argue that, when both attraction and selection are at work, both affect final outcomes.

Dan Sperber. 2007. Le témoignage et l’argumentation dans une perspective évolutionniste. Raisons Pratiques, 2007, 17.

Version française de: An Evolutionary perspective on testimony and argumentation. Philosophical Topics. (2001). 29. 401-413

Dan Sperber & Lawrence Hirschfeld. 2007. Culture and modularity. In: Peter Carruthers, Stephen Laurence, Stephen Stich (eds.) The innate mind: culture and cognition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, pp. 149-164

“…We agree with standard social science that culture is not human psychology writ large and that it would make little sense to seek a psychological reductionist explanation of culture. We believe, however, that psychological factors play an essential role in culture. Among these psychological factors, the modular organization of human cognitive abilities favors the recurrence, cross-cultural variability, and local stability of a wide range of cultural representations. “

Dan Sperber. 2007. Seedless Grapes: Nature and Culture. In Stephen Laurence & Eric Margolis (eds) Creations of the Mind: Theories of Artifacts and their Representation, Oxford UP

“…Domesticated plants and animals have simultaneously biological, cultural, and artifactual functions… How should we describe these functions and their articulation? What are the biological and cultural functions of seedless grapes, or of suntans, and how do these functions interact? In trying to answer such questions, we are led to rethink the relationship between nature and culture, and to reappraise the notion of an artifact….”

Dan Sperber. 2006. Why a deep understanding of cultural evolution is incompatible with shallow psychology. in Nick Enfield and Stephen Levinson (eds.) Roots of Human Sociality, 2006, 431-449

“…I will argue that understanding the mind is doubly important to the study of culture. Psychological considerations are crucial both to a proper characterization of what is cultural and to a proper explanation of cultural phenomena…”

Dan Sperber and Nicolas Claidière. 2006. Why Modeling Cultural Evolution Is Still Such a Challenge. Biological Theory 2006 1(1): 20-22

“…it will take more than adjusting the Darwinian model to be faithful to the Darwinian inspiration…”

Dan Sperber. 2003. Pourquoi repenser l’interdisciplinarité?. Séminaire virtuel Rethinking interdisciplinarity / Repenser l’interdisciplinarité à www.interdisciplines.org

Version française de “Why rethink interdisciplinarity?” Texte discuté dans le cadre du séminaire virtuel Rethinking interdisciplinarity / Repenser l’interdisciplinarité à  www.interdisciplines.org (où l’intégralité de la discussion est en ligne).

Dan Sperber. 2003. Why rethink interdisciplinarity? Virtual seminar Rethinking interdisciplinarity on www.interdisciplines.org

English version of “Pourquoi repenser l’interdisciplinarité?” Text discussed in the virtual seminar Rethinking interdisciplinarity / Repenser l’interdisciplinarité on www.interdisciplines.org 2003 (where the whole discussion is available).

Maurice Bloch and Dan Sperber. 2002. Kinship and evolved psychological dispositions: The Mother’s Brother controversy reconsidered. Current Anthropology. 2002. 43 (4) 723-748.

Abstract: This article revisits the old controversy concerning the relation of the mother’s brother and sister’s son in patrilineal societies in the light both of anthropological criticisms of the very notion of kinship and of evolutionary and epidemiological approaches to culture. It argues that the ritualized patterns of behavior discussed by Radcliffe-Brown, Goody, and others are to be explained in terms of the interaction of a variety of factors, some local and historical, others pertaining to general human dispositions. In particular, an evolved disposition to favor relatives can contribute to the development and stabilization of these behaviors not by directly generating them but by making them particularly “catchy” and resilient. In this way, it is possible to recognize both that cultural representations and practices are specific to a community at a time in its history (rather than mere tokens of a general type) and that they are, in essential respects, grounded in the common evolved psychology of human beings.

Dan Sperber. 2002. Il futuro della scrittura. Convegno virtuale “text-e”

Contributo al convegno virtuale text-e, 2002, il primo convegno interamente virtuale dedicato all’impatto di Internet sul testo scritto, la lettura e la diffusione della conoscenza. Il convegno si è svolto dal 15 ottobre 2001 a fine marzo 2002. Su text-e troverete le dieci conferenze invitate e i dibattiti archiviati che hanno seguito ogni conferenza.

Dan Sperber. 2002. L’avenir de l’écriture. Colloque virtuel “text-e”

Texte écrit en anglais, français et italien pour le colloque virtuel text-e, organisé par l’Association Euro-Edu, la Bibliothèque Publique d’Information du Centre Pompidou  et la Société GiantChair, colloque consacré à explorer l’impact de l’Internet sur la lecture, l’écriture et la diffusion du savoir. Le colloque s’est déroulé du 15 octobre 2001 jusqu’à fin mars 2002; les débats peuvent être consultés sur le site du colloque ou dans Text-e: Le texte à l’heure de l’Internet, Gloria Origgi & Noga Arikha eds., 2003 Paris: Bibliothèque Publique d’Information.

Dan Sperber. 2002. The future of writing. Virtual symposium “text-e”

Text written in English, French and Italian for the virtual symposium text-e, organised by the Association Euro-Edu, the Bibliothèque Publique d’Information du Centre Pompidou and the Société GiantChair on the impact of the Web on reading, writing and the diffusion of knowledge. The symposium took place from October 15th 2001 until the end of March 2002. The debates can be read on the site of the symposium.

Dan Sperber. 2001. L’individuel sous influence du collectif. La Recherche, 344, juillet-août 2001, pp. 32-35

“Notre activité mentale s’appuie sur des mémoires externes qui ont évolué avec le développement de l’écriture, de l’imprimerie, et maintenant des nouvelles technologies de l’information. Une évolution dont doivent tenir compte aussi bien les sciences sociales que les sciences cognitives…”

Dan Sperber. 2001. An Evolutionary perspective on testimony and argumentation. Philosophical Topics. (2001). 29. 401-413.

“…A significant proportion of socially acquired beliefs are likely to be false beliefs, and this not just as a result of the malfunctioning, but also of the proper functioning of social communication…”

Dan Sperber. 2001. Conceptual tools for a natural science of society and culture (Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthopology 1999). In Proceedings of the British Academy, 111, 297-317.

Abstract: To approach society and culture in a naturalistic way, the domain of the social sciences must be reconceptualised by recognising only entities and processes of which we have a naturalistic understanding. These are mental representations and public productions, the processes that causally link them, the causal chains that bond these links, and the complex webs of such causal chains that criss-cross human populations over time and space. Such causal chains may distribute and stabilise representations and productions throughout a human population, thereby generating culture. The lecture introduces several conceptual tools useful for such a naturalistic approach, and illustrates their use with the case study of ritual activity in a Southern Ethiopian household.

Dan Sperber. 2000. Quelques outils conceptuels pour une science naturelle de la societe et de la culture. Traduction en Français de “Conceptual tools for a natural science of society and culture – Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthopology 1999”. par Louis Quéré. Raisons Pratiques, 2000

Résumé : Pour aborder la société et la culture d’une manière naturaliste, il faut reconceptualiser le domaine du social en n’y reconnaissant que des entités et des processus dont nous avons une compréhension naturaliste. Il s’agira de représentations mentales et de productions publiques, des processus qui les lient causalement, des chaînes causales qui associent ces liens, et des réseaux complexes de ces chaînes causales qui parcourent en tous sens les populations humaines dans le temps et l’espace. De telles chaînes causales peuvent distribuer et stabiliser des représentations et des productions à travers une population humaine et ainsi engendrer de la culture. Ce texte introduit plusieurs outils conceptuels pour développer cette approche naturaliste et l’illustre par une étude de cas portant sur une activité rituelle dans une maisonnée du sud de l’Éthiopie.

Gloria Origgi & Dan Sperber. 2000. Evolution, communication and the proper function of language. In P. Carruthers & A. Chamberlain (Eds.), Evolution and the Human Mind: Language, Modularity and Social Cognition (pp. 140–169). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

“Language is both a biological and a cultural phenomenon. Our aim here is to discuss, in an evolutionary perspective, the articulation of these two aspects of language. For this, we draw on the general conceptual framework developed by Ruth Millikan (1984) while at the same time dissociating ourselves from her view of language…”

Dan Sperber. 2000. An objection to the memetic approach to culture. In: Robert Aunger (ed.) Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science. Oxford University Press, 163-173.

“Memetics is one possible evolutionary approach to the study of culture. Boyd and Richerson’s models (1985), or my epidemiology of representations (1985, 1996), are among other possible evolutionary approaches inspired in various ways by Darwin. Memetics however, is, by its very simplicity, particularly attractive…”

Dan Sperber. 2000. Metarepresentations in an evolutionary perspective. In Dan Sperber ed. Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Oxford University Press, 2000, pp.117-137.

“Just as bats are unique in their ability to use echolocation, so are humans unique in their ability to use metarepresentations. Other primates may have some rather rudimentary metarepresentational capacities. We humans are massive users of metarepresentations, and of quite complex ones at that…”

Dan Sperber. Pour un utopisme raisonné. Dans Roger-Pol Droit et Dan Sperber, Des Idées qui viennent, Odile Jacob 1999, chapitre 5, pp. 169-187.

Roger-Pol Droit et moi avons publié en 1999 une discussion philosophique et politique entre nous en six parties, chacune introduite par un cour essai de l’un ou de l’autre. Voici le troisième de mes trois essais.

Dan Sperber. Voir autrement la culture. Dans Roger-Pol Droit et Dan Sperber, Des Idées qui viennent, Odile Jacob 1999, chapitre 3, pp. 91-105

Roger-Pol Droit et moi avons publié en 1999 une discussion philosophique et politique entre nous en six parties, chacune introduite par un cour essai de l’un ou de l’autre. Voici le second de mes trois essais.

Dan Sperber and Lawrence Hirschfeld. 1999. Culture, Cognition, and Evolution. In Robert Wilson & Frank Keil (eds) MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1999) pp.cxi-cxxxii

“Most work in the cognitive sciences focuses on the manner in which an individual device — be it a mind, a brain, or a computer — processes various kinds of information. Cognitive psychology in particular is primarily concerned with individual thought and behavior. Individuals however belong to populations. This is true in two quite different senses. Individual organisms are members of species and share a genome and most phenotypic traits with the other members of the same species. Organisms essentially have the cognitive capacities characteristic of their species, with relatively superficial individual variations. In social species, individuals are also members of groups. An important part of their cognitive activity is directed toward other members of the group with whom they cooperate and compete. Among humans in particular, social life is richly cultural. Sociality and culture are made possible by cognitive capacities, contribute to the ontogenetic and phylogenetic development of these capacities, and provide specific inputs to cognitive processes…”

Dan Sperber. 1998. Are Folk Taxonomies “memes”? Commentary on Scott Atran (1998) ‘Folk biology and the anthropology of science: Cognitive universals and cultural particulars’. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21:4. 589-90

Abstract: This commentary stresses the importance of Atran’s work for the development of a new cognitive anthropology, but questions both his particular use of Dawkins’s “meme” model and the general usefulness of the meme model for understanding folk-taxonomies as cultural phenomena.

Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. 1997. Remarks on relevance theory and the social sciences. In Multilingua 16 (1997): 145-51.

“Some commentators have described the relevance-theoretic approach to communication as psychological rather than sociological. Often, this is intended as a criticism. We would like to respond by reflecting in very general terms about possible interactions between relevance theory and research programmes in the social sciences…”

Dan Sperber. 1997. Intuitive and reflective beliefs. In Mind and Language 12 (1) (1997). pp. 67-83

Abstract: Humans have two kinds of beliefs, intuitive beliefs and reflective beliefs. Intuitive beliefs are a most fundamental category of cognition, defined in the architecture of the mind. They are formulated in an intuitive mental lexicon. Humans are also capable of entertaining an indefinite variety of higher-order or “reflective” propositional attitudes, many of which are of a credal sort. Reasons to hold “reflective beliefs” are provided by other beliefs that describe the source of the reflective belief as reliable, or that provide explicit arguments in favour of the reflective belief. The mental lexicon of reflective beliefs includes not only intuitive, but also reflective concepts.

Dan Sperber. 1997. Methodological individualism and cognitivism in the social sciences;. Unpublished English version of “Individualisme méthodologique et cognitivisme.” In : R. Boudon, F. Chazel & A. Bouvier (eds.) Cognition et sciences sociales. Paris: Presse Universitaires de France, 1997. pp. 123-136

“I would like to contrast two interpretations, a weak one and a strong one, of the notion of methodological individualism, and two interpretations, a weak one and a strong one, of the notion of cognitivism. This double contrast determines four ways in which one might choose to be at the same time a methodological individualist and a cognitivist in the social sciences. One way, where both positions are adopted with a weak interpretation, is of little interest. I will argue that another way, where both positions are adopted with a strong interpretation, is incoherent. I will compare the two other possibilities…”

Dan Sperber. 1997. Individualisme méthodologique et cognitivisme. Dans: R. Boudon, F. Chazel & A. Bouvier (eds.) Cognition et sciences sociales. Paris: Presse Universitaires de France. (1997) 123-136.

“Je voudrai ici contraster deux interprétations, l’une faible, l’autre forte, de la notion d’individualisme méthodologique, et deux interprétations, l’une faible, l’autre forte, de la notion de cognitivisme. Des quatres façons dont il serait concevable de se vouloir individualiste et cognitiviste à la fois, l’une (où l’on adopte les deux positions dans leur interpétation faible) est de peu d’intérêt. Je soutiendrai qu’une autre façon (où l’on adopte les deux positions dans leur interprétation forte) est incohérente. Je comparerai les deux autres possibilités…”

Dan Sperber. 1996. Author’s presentation of Explaining Culture

The six essays collected in Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach (Blackwell, 1996) are all arguments for, and contributions to an epidemiology of representations.

Dan Sperber 1996 [original 1975]. Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought? Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 8-2, (1996) 143-169.

Abstract. Work on animal symbolism, in particular that of Mary Douglas, suggests that the symbolic value of some animals is grounded in taxonomic anomaly. Yet the work of ethno-zoologists tends to show that folk-taxonomies are consistent and devoid of true anomalies. This raises a first problem. Moreover, not only anomalous animals, but also exemplary animals often take on a symbolic value, thus raising a second problem. A solution to both problems is suggested, based on an examination of the cognitive organization of folk-taxonomies, and with illustrations drawn from Ethiopian, Biblical, and Western culture. (Revised in 1980, English version of “Pourquoi les animaux parfaits, les hybrides et les monstres sont-ils bons à penser symboliquement?”L’Homme, XV (2) (1975) 5-24). [PDF version])

Dan Sperber. 1993. Remarques anthropologiques sur le relativisme moral. Dans Jean-Pierre Changeux (ed.), Fondements naturels de l’éthique, Paris: Odile Jacob, 1993, pp. 319-334.

Résumé : On considère une série de distinctions : entre relativisme métaphysique et relativisme anthropologique, entre relativisme cognitif et relativisme moral, entre états mentaux et doctrines culturelles, entre justification et choix, entre morale et pratique, entre morale et convention, entre communauté morale et humanité, toutes pertinentes pour une évaluation du relativisme anthropologique en matière de morale. Faire ces distinctions permet montrer que le relativisme anthropologique classique souffrait de graves faiblesses conceptuelles et méthodologiques. Cependant, pour pouvoir évaluer la thèse relativiste elle même, il faudrait des recherches empiriques conceptuellement et méthodologiquement bien conçues qui sont bien trop rares en la matière.

(1988) Le Relativisme en Anthropologie: Débat entre Paul Jorion et Dan Sperber. Revue du MAUSS Nouvelle série, Numéro 1, 12-26.

Paul Jorion et moi étions plus jeunes, mais le débat était déjà vieux!

Dan Sperber. 1985. On Anthropological Knowledge: Three Essays. Cambridge University Press.

Here is the whole book that had been out of print for a while.

Dan Sperber. 1975. Rethinking Symbolism. Cambridge University Press.

Here is the whole book that had been out of print for a while.


Dan Sperber. 1974. Contre certains a priori anthropologiques. In E. Morin and M. Piatelli-Palmarini (éds.), iL’unité de l’homme (Paris, Le Seuil, ) 491-512

“…La spécificité générique de l’homme serait d’être, de tous les animaux, le moins génériquement spécifié, et l’ethnographie en apporterait la preuve….”

Sperber D. 1967. Leach et les anthropologues. Cahiers Internationaux de Sociologie, (1967) XLIII, 123-142.

Mon premier article de recherche. [version PDF]