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. They were written at different stages in my work over the past twelve years (and have been rewritten for this volume), but they were all, in my mind, parts of a single project: after my On Anthropological Knowledge (CUP, 1985), which was more on the critical side, I wanted to contribute positively to the “rethinking of anthropology” famously advocated by Edmund Leach. Throughout, I assumed a biological evolutionary background, but it is only progressively that I became aware of many of its potential uses, so that evolutionary themes are more important in later chapters. Chapter 5, in particular, is wholly on theoretical evolutionary issues, and chapter 6 is a straightforward contribution to evolutionary psychology.

The basic idea of an epidemiology of representations as I understand it can be summarized as follows: A human population is inhabited by a much wider population of mental representations. The common environment of that population is furnished with the public productions of its members, some long lasting, like buildings, other ephemeral, like the sounds of speech. Particularly important among these productions are (tokens of) public representations. Typically, productions have mental representations among their causes, and mental representations have productions (in particular public representations) among their causes. There are thus complex causal chains where mental representations and public productions alternate. In many cases, representations (mental or public), occuring in these causal chains inherit some of the semantic properties of the representations (mental or public) of which they are causal descendants. A variety of inter individual processes bring about this match between causal and semantic relationships. Processes of imitation and communication can be described as having the function of bringing about such semantic similarity. However, neither communication nor imitation are replication mechanisms, so that, I argue, standard selectionist models don’t properly apply. The psychological dispositions that make possible the individual formation and social distribution of representations, are, on the other hand, evolved mechanisms to be explained in straightforward Darwinian terms.

More detail, for those who care:

Chapter 1, “How to be a true materialist in anthropology,” introduces the project of an epidemiology of representations from a philosophical point view. A naturalistic program in the social sciences requires, I argue, rethinking the very categories by means of which we approach the domain. This requirement, or at least its scope, is not generally understood by researchers who adopt a naturalistic point of view and who dismiss, rather than address and solve, the genuine problems raised by those who believe that the social sciences, because they deal with meanings, cannot be naturalized.

Chapter 2, “Interpreting and explaining cultural representations,” introduces the project from a more social-scientific point of view. It considers the different types of understanding worth aiming at in anthropology. It contrasts in particular interpretive and causal explanations. It locates the epidemiological project among other types of standard social science explanation.

Chapter 3, “Anthropology and psychology: Towards an epidemiology of representations,” expands the general idea of an epidemiology of representations introduced in the two preceding chapters, and illustrates it briefly. Biological evolutionary considerations play a significant role here, in particular via a distinction between selected for psychological dispositions and psychological susceptibilities that are side effects of these dispositions.

Chapter 4, “The epidemiology of beliefs,” develops one of the themes of the preceding chapter and illustrates how psychology and anthropology may be highly relevant to one another in answering some of their respective traditional questions, and in formulating new common questions. It draws on earlier work of mine on apparently irrational beliefs and integrates it within an epidemiological perspective.

Chapter 5, “Selection and attraction in cultural evolution,” is about the different ways of modelling of cultural evolution. I contrast the selectionist models of cultural evolution defended by Richard Dawkins and others, with a more general epidemiological model of “cultural attraction,” where a greater role is given to psychological mechanisms. More specifically, the argument of this chapter is as follows:

Evolutionary models of culture assume that

a) Culture is made up of specific units (such as Dawkins’s “memes”),

b) These units replicate themselves with occasional variations,

c) Some process of selection among these variations is the main force driving cultural evolution.

I challenge these assumptions and argue that

A) The relevant units in the study of cultural evolution are the token mental representations and the token public productions that inhabit a human population and its environment. These units are not intrinsically cultural (and nothing is).

B) Mental representations and public productions may cause the tokenings of descendants that more or less resemble them. However, processes in these causal chains, including those of imitation and of communication, are best seen as processes of transformation. Replication, when it occurs at all, is best seen as a limiting case of null transformation. Explaining culture is, then, a matter of explaining under which circumstances there ocurs a relative stabilization of form or content in the generation of representations and productions.

C) Causal chains of mental representations and public productions can be described as moving, with each transformation, over a space of possibilities. In this space, there are attractors such that, in their vicinity, transformations tend to be of limited amplitude and to cancel one another out, mimicking replication. Attractors themselves have quite diverse etiologies. Some of these attractors are constant across cultures and times; others are culture specific and precarious. The main force driving cultural evolution is the selective stabilization brought about by these attractors.

Chapter 6, “Mental modularity and cultural diversity,” takes as it starting point an idea suggested long ago by Noam Chomsky and developed in particular by evolutionary psychologists. The human mind, it is argued, is better viewed, not as general all purpose intelligence, but as a combination of many devices that are in part genetically programmed. These modules are differently specialized, both in terms of the cognitive domains they handle, and of the type of information processing they perform. There is a tension, however, between this rather nativist view of cognition, and the recognition of human cultural diversity, which suggest on the contrary that the mind is indefinitely malleable. One way of resolving the tension would be to deny, or downplay, the modularity of the mind. In this chapter I do just the opposite: I argue for massive modularity. I then try to show that strong, genetically determined, cognitive predispositions, not only are quite compatible with the kind of cultural diversity we encounter, but even contribute to the explanation of this diversity.

September 1996