The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology versus Ethnography

The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology versus Ethnography

The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology versus Ethnography

The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology versus Ethnography

Synopsis

In a further development of the nature-nurture debate, this collection of articles questions how the human mind influences the content and organization of culture. In the study of mental activity, can the effects of evolution and history be teased apart?Evolutionary psychologists argue that cultural transmission is constrained by our genetic inheritance. Few social and cultural anthropologists have found this argument to be relevant to their work and many would doubt its validity. This book uniquely pitches the arguments for innatism against ethnographic perspectives that call into question the theoretical foundations of orthodox evolutionary biology and cognitive science. Ultimately the aim of the debate is to create an original set of mutually compatible theories that will open up new areas for interdisciplinary research.

Excerpt

Social scientists are notoriously scornful of the naive reductionism of socio-biological and psychological perspectives on culture while those working in fields of biology and cognitive science have often been exasperated at the reluctance of social/cultural theorists to recognize the explanatory power and relevance of naturalistic models in the study of human behaviour. One of the greatest controversies fuelling this unproductive situation has been the so-called nature/nurture debate. Crudely, if it could have been demonstrated that cultural phenomena are the infinitely variable consequences of ‘learned’ mental abilities then the social scientists would have been vindicated in their dismissal of most biological perspectives. Conversely, if it could have been shown that certain cultural things are shaped by ‘innate’ features of mental processing then the successful encroachment of biologists would have been assured.

The debate which unfolds in this volume is rather more subtle. the theories advanced in Part One are founded on conventional models in evolutionary psychology and cognitive science, in which the recognition of both genetic and environmental causes of neurological/mental development is axiomatic. At the ‘nativist’ end of the spectrum, some theorists (e.g. Sperber, this volume) argue that the mind-brain is richly endowed with genetically specified mechanisms for the discrimination and processing of inputs. Nevertheless, Sperber's notion of ‘genetic specification’ is not intended to mean a blueprint for mental activity but rather a set of instructions (rather like computer hardware) that must be augmented by information from the environment (the equivalent of computer software) in order to become operational. At the other end of the spectrum, there are ‘empiricists’ who envisage the neonate as a tabula rasa, bombarded by a flux of inputs that can only be discriminated and conceptualized through experience and learning, without the guidance of genetically specified equipment capable of anticipating some of that input. Between these two positions, cognitive science offers a vast array of competing perspectives, attributing varying degrees of importance to both genetic and environmental factors in relation to specific aspects of cognitive development.

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