jump to navigation

Naturalistic Theory of Culture 16 February 2010

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Teaching.
comments closed

I’m constantly working on explaining the naturalistic theory of culture to my students. I have posted on this several times in the past and am still working it out. I want my students to understand both that culture is plastic and context dependent, and that culture is also always embodied and emergent from interaction. My main beef with postmodern views of culture isn’t that they emphasize its contingency, but rather that they often elide the ways that it is connected to the material, biological, obdurate world  that produced it. Often (and I admit that I’m being glib and gestural here), postmodern cultural theory becomes a “nothing is real” stance, mistaking the fact that human culture is contextual and emergent for proof that it is disconnected from the world. Also, the constructivist view (which I am 90% in agreement with) often ends in a cultural determinism which is, for me, as problematic and irksome as a biological determinism. In short, culture is not an independent, self-referential, pure construction; it is rather a grounded, embodied emergent property of the interaction of brains in environments.

I begin my “Nature and World Cultures” course with a three-week crash course in human evolution where I attempt to demonstrate the emergence of the cultured-brain as an effect of evolution, and where I try to give the students the base for seeing at a base, empirical level the ways that minds (what brains do) and the “environment” (i.e., nature) are so connected as to blur into the same thing. My stance here is based on John Dewey’s extended argument in Nature and Experience, but has built from there from my readings in evolutionary theory, cognitive science, and from my own empirical research about gay men and meaning.

Here is my most recent attempt to explain to students my conception of a naturalistic explanation of culture. I’m using the word “umbworld” (a back formation from an Old English word) to emphasize that the human environment is both physical/ecological and social (as is actually true of all social species).

At the end of class today, we had arrived at the central thesis of the first section of the course, which is our working theory of culture: its origins, how it works, why it exists, how it changes over time. It is naturalistic (which is a word from philosophy) because it insists that the separation between “nature” and “culture” is a false one. Here are some key ideas that arise from the information we’ve discussed the past two class days.

1) Nature and culture are not separate, but are the same thing, or to say it differently, inextricably, constitutively linked.

a) the contents of our mind (culture), the very way we think and what we think about, come from our brain’s interaction with the umbworld (nature).

b) the contents of our mind (our culture) recursively acts upon the umbworld constantly transforming it (i.e., nature), which in turn, transforms the contents of our mind (culture) which in turn transforms the umbworld (nature), and so on.

2) Without the obdurate, physical environment (including other humans), our minds wouldn’t exist. Mind (culture) arises (emerges) our of constant, never-ending interaction with the umbworld (which includes nature). And the umbworld itself is emergent, and arises out of the constant interaction with human minds (cultures).

3) The naturalistic theory of culture, then, insists that asking the question “nature or nurture” or “biology or culture” is the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking how our evolutionary biological form produced the cultural brain; how culture is an emergent property of brains in a society; that culture only exists in a body (culture is embodied) and could not exist without a body; that the beliefs, practices, and objects of any individual or group emerge over time in specific umbworlds; that the brain evolved to give a degree of agency over both the umbworld and its own consciousness to solve problems; and finally because culture is inextricably linked to the environment and because the environment is constantly changing, so is culture a necessarily emergent property of the brain, not a thing in itself.


Morality and the Brain 4 August 2008

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Ethics.
comments closed

Some new research into our innate moral capacity (the ability to think morally is innate, not the rules; although there are some foundational presumptions human brains tend to make, relating to reciprocal altruism, but that’s not what I’m posting about here). In western philosophy, there are basically two kinds of moral arguments, deontological and utilitarian. This is an oversimplification that people who are studying the cognition of morality make to be able to categorize what they are observing. In most simple terms, deontological arguments function on principles or categorical imperatives, and in day-to-day life are made emotionally, without conscious rational thinking. Utilitarian arguments focus on maximizing good outcomes, and in day-to-day life people are able to give their rational arguments for their position, that is, they do invoke their conscious problem-solving brain. Cognitive scientists have thought for about 10 years now that humans use both systems to make their moral judgments, but had until now thought that the two systems worked in tandem or in competition with each other. Some new experiments seem to indicate that the two work independently of each other and do not overlap in brain processes. Very cool. Here’s the article from Scientific American, “Thinking about Morality”.

Lakoff on Obama v. Clinton 3 February 2008

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Cognitive Science, Democracy, Politics.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
comments closed

Lakoff often irritates me for what I think is often a sloppy misapplication of his research on linguistic frames to politics; but his is the first description of Obama v. Clinton that I’ve read that really articulates what I’ve been struggling to define over the past few weeks (even more since Edwards dropped out). Why does Obama continue to appeal to me so much (despite his ex-gay mistep a few months ago)? It’s the combination of policy + vision that really gets my attention. And we hear endlessly about “conservative values” and “value voters” from the MSM, but no one ever talks about the values that drive the left, that we too are values voters. This resonance with Obama for me goes back to his speech at the 2004 convention, where in the middle of the DNC trying to play the center (Clinton’s fucking “triangulation politics” has ruined the Democratic party for the past 15 years), and in the middle of the Bush administrations campaign of misinformation and outright lies, here comes Obama like a fresh breeze. It wasn’t substantive in a political sense, but it was a reminder of what the best in politics can be. It’s not that I value rhetoric over pragmatic policy making; but it is that I respond so strongly to the values that drive those policies. [Hat tip to my friend Hank for pointing me to Lakoff’s piece.]

Political endorsements rarely make interesting reading. But this year is different. Take the endorsements of Hillary Clinton by the New York Times [NY Times, January 25, 2008] and Barack Obama by Caroline Kennedy [NY Times, January 27, 2008].

To the editors of the New York Times, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama agree on policy goals:

“On the major issues, there is no real gulf separating the two. They promise an end to the war in Iraq, more equitable taxation, more effective government spending, more concern for social issues, a restoration of civil liberties and an end to the politics of division of George W. Bush and Karl Rove.”
What matters to the editors is experience in “tackling … issues” — in mastering details of policy and carrying them out one by one. “The next president needs to start immediately on challenges that will require concrete solutions, resolve, and the ability to make government work.”

To Caroline Kennedy, policy is not the real issue:

“Most of us would prefer to base our voting decision on policy differences. However, the candidates’ goals are similar. They have all laid out detailed plans on everything from strengthening our middle class to investing in early childhood education. So qualities of leadership, character and judgment play a larger role than usual.

“I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it; who holds himself, and those around him, to the highest ethical standards; who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream, and those around the world who still believe in the American ideal; and who can lift our spirits, and make us believe again that our country needs every one of us to get involved.”

The difference is striking. To the editors of the New York Times, the quality of leadership seems not to be an “issue.” The ability to unite the country is not an “issue.” What Obama calls the empathy deficit — attunement to the experience and needs of real people — is not an “issue.” Honesty is not an “issue.” Trust is not an “issue.” Moral judgment is not an “issue.” Values are not “issues.” Adherence to democratic ideals — rather than political positioning, triangulation, and incrementalism — are not “issues.” Inspiration, a call to a higher purpose, and a transcendence of interest-based politics are not “issues.”

It is time to understand what counts as an “issue,” to whom, and why.

In Thinking Points, the handbook for progressives that the Rockridge Institute staff and I wrote last year, we began by analyzing Ronald Reagan’s strengths as a politician. According to his chief strategist, Richard Wirthlin, Reagan realized that most voters do not vote primarily on the basis of policies, but rather on (1) values, (2) connection, (3) authenticity, (4) trust, and (5) identity. That is, Reagan spoke about his values, and policies for him just exemplified values. He connected viscerally with people. He was perceived as authentic, as really believing what he said. As a result, people trusted him and identified with him. Even if they had different positions on issues, they knew where he stood. Even when his economic policies did not produce a “Morning in America,” voters still felt a connection to him because he spoke to what they wanted America to be. That was what allowed Reagan to gain the votes of so many independents and Democrats.

There is a reason that Obama recently spoke of Reagan. Reagan understood that you win elections by drawing support from independents and the opposite side. He understood what unified the country so that he could lead it according to his vision. His vision was a radical conservative one, a vision devastating for the country and contradicted by his economic policies.

Obama understands the importance of values, connection, authenticity, trust, and identity.

But his vision is deeply progressive. He proposes to lead in a very different direction than Reagan. Crucially, he adds to that vision a streetwise pragmatism: his policies have to do more than look good on paper; they have to bring concrete material results to millions of struggling Americans in the lower and middle classes. They have to meet the criteria of a community organizer.

The Clintonian policy wonks don’t seem to understand any of this. They have trivialized Reagan’s political acumen as an illegitimate triumph of personality over policy. They confuse values with programs. They have underestimated authenticity and trust.

I actually have to disagree with both Kennedy and the NYT on the policy issue. On some policies, I think Clinton is clearly better: she knows her stuff backwards and forward on issues such as health care reform. And I find many of her policies to be too much of a compromise for the right-leaning wonks’ benefit. It’s not that I’m against compromise, just that I want to hear the grand ideas and goals up front, and like a barter system, you can’t give too much to the opposition up front or you end up with a center that is far to the right of world political norms.

Meaning of Life, cont. 11 May 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Cognitive Science, Modernity and Modernism, Mormonism/LDS Church.
comments closed

[A cyber-aquaintence posted some questions to my meaning of life post, and I thought it might be interesting to others who read my blog.]

What are examples of adaptive, maladaptive and spandrel meanings?

Well, it’s probably easier to speak in generalities, but here’s the skinny:

1) Humans are social animals, and like all social animals, our behaviors (or mode of interacting with the environment) are necessarily also always social.

2) Meaning must be understood as much more than the cognitive-linguistic explanation of something. We tend to think of “meaning” in terms of the dictionary: a discursive, linguistic representation of an idea. However, in social-behavioristic terms, language is merely a kind of behavior: so meaning becomes the whole set of circumstances, postures, consequences of a given behavior in a particular environment. We learn what something “means” not merely by hearing a dictionary definition of the thing, but by doing, observing, experiencing the thing. [Side note: Language is very cool because it allows us to experience something vicariously and abstractly, but the brain responses are the same as if we were directly experiencing it, which is why, for example, you get butterflies watching someone else jump out of a plane.]

so 3) adaptive meanings are those which, within a given environment (which remember is both physical and social) enable survival. There are some beliefs that only peripherally relate to the physical environment, but are key to survival in the social environment. Part of survival for a social species is successful interdependence in the social group.

Maladaptive meanings are those which inhibit survival and/or reproduction in the environment. And a spandrel is a meaning that is adaptively neutral.

Think of meanings as a kind of adaptation that persist or desist in the same dynamics as physical characteristics. If the environment changes, the meanings must adapt to the new enviornment. Adaptive could become maladaptive; a spandrel could become adaptive; etc.

There are a couple professors at UC Davis who have done a series of mathematical studies and have shown that human cultures have a balance of conservative and innovative thinkers within them. If the culture is too conservative, its members will fail to adapt to a changing environment; if a culture is too innovative, its members will adopt possibly maladaptive meanings in the wrong times and places. Cognitive scientists are finding that individuals tend to lean to one side or the other, and that both sides are necessary for survival. Evolution seems to favor slightly conservation, because our lifespan is so short and because when we evolved our environments were changing so slowly, that being more or less conservative culturally ensured survival: Once you find what works, you keep it.

Also remember a key part of evolutionary theory, which seems to also apply to culture/meanings: adaptation does not select for the best possible answer. Rather, it selects for the merely good enough. This seems to be true both biologically and socially.

And what’s the reader’s digest version of how you make that evaluation? Is it simply a matter of whether it’s constructive or destructive?

John Dewey argued that you make the evaluation based on outcomes. What is the consequence of believing such a thing (or doing such a thing) and is that the outcome you want? Then there’s the meta-level where you have to argue about what you *should* want in the first place (what kind of society/physical environment do we want to establish or maintain)? That, in simple terms, is the method of evaluation.

Finally, for Joseph Smith and True Believin Mormons nowadays (and I understand those are 2 vastly different mindsets from a social scientific or any other perspective) is the “meaning” of the plan of salvation simply an adaptive meaning to give “purpose” to life and give us comfort knowing that things are fucked up on earth but everything will be perfect in the next life (if you follow the rules of course)?

To answer this question, I would stand back and think about this scientifically. JS lived in a particular time and place in America, where there were many open questions and huge problems in the environment. The U.S. was still quite young, and it was not at all clear what it would mean to be free, what a democracy was, who was a citizen, who had power and who not, etc. Further, the older folk magic of the agrarian peoples (i.e., Smith’s magic hunting) was coming into direct conflict with the explosive 2nd Great Awakening and the increasingly influential Moral reform movements; so people all over rural America were unsure about their cultures, because there was conflict within the social environment. On a broad scale, the industrial revolution was causing major disruption to the social and economic lifeways of the entire nation, displacing 10s of 1000s of people and forcing them to radically change the way they lived their lives. I cannot understate the upheaval this caused during the first 100 years of America’s existence as a nation. Finally, even though it had been 200 years since the Euroepans had started colonizing north america, the question as yet had not been answered: Where does America fit in spiritually? is it the “city upon the hill” as the Puritans thought? And if so, what exactly does that mean? Combine all this with the growing ideas of manifest destiny and westward expansion, and you have a social and cultural environment rife with the need to be explained.

JS’s ever-changing mode of understanding Christianity and his place in it was both one man’s efforts to become powerful, and an entire people’s efforts to make sense of that world. JS was an innovator, in the terms I laid out above.

As it happens, mormonism was so outside the bounds of the environment as it was, they were harried to and fro for 75 years.

I think that contemporary mormons have carried into the present all those beliefs that still manage to fill in the wholes in the environments they live in, but it’s more complicated now: Mormons today have to survive in both the American social environment (they’re no longer isolated) and among each other. And all of these meanings are circulating again in a time of great upheaval, primarily in the form of massive technological changes and globalization, which have thrown into question every fundamental belief of every culture on the planet. TBMs reactions and retrenchments now are on the conservative side (although they are adapting at break-neck speed, as we see in the major doctrinal changes occuring in the past 25 years). Mormon belief systems are pretty adaptive in our current social environment: TBMs function mostly well in society, gain prominence in general (although not the presidency), are economically stable and reproduce at an alarming rate, both sexually and proselytically.

Naturalism and the Meaning of Life 11 May 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Religion.
comments closed

Many people who lose their religion or who through education have to radically change their world view find that they are afloat without mooring. The cognitive dissonance leads to a time of searching for something new. I read recently (can’t find the original, sorry) where a theologian said something to the effect that even if we know scientifically that there is no god, it doesn’t change the experiences that make us look for a god in the first place. We still experience awe, wonder, confusion, love in the face of our daily lives. What do those experiences mean?

One of the things that cognitive scientists always insist on is that we can scientifically understand the how and why of qualia (the phenomenological experience of sensing, thinking, feeling), but it doesn’t change the fact that they are qualia. In other words, we still have to figure out (because we have overly large brains) what the qualia *mean*. (I like Antonio D’Amasio on this point.)

I’m not an anti-reductionist, and I do not argue that the meaning discussions are or should be separate from the scientific ones. My social science is naturalistic (which is that social theory and research must account for the research and theory of other sciences (I would also argue the inverse, but since I’m not an ethologist, i have less of a stake in the inverse debate). But naturalism actually leaves us with that pesky problem of meaning:

The need for meaning is generated by our evolved brains and is an evolutionary adaptation that has made us the most successful (and dangerous) species on the planet. [Some argue that our need for cognitive meaning is an unintentional side effect (an evolutionary spandrel) of our cognitive, problem-solving, time-projecting brains).  So scientifically, we are beginning to understand why our brains need meaning and how our brains produce meaning; and social scientifically I can even explain why a particular individual or a group produces a particular meaning in a particular time and place. Combining social science with biology (biologists here need to take social science more seriously), I can even evaluate whether or not a particular meaning is adaptive, maladaptive, or a spandrel (i.e., neutral).

But I can’t use science to tell me what it *should* mean. On the other hand, I believe that scientific mindset can/must be used in our cultural conversations about what meanings we chose. In other words, we should be asking ourselves, what kind of world and society do we create when we believe X or Y? We have the ability as humans to evaluate our meanings and reject, modify or change them out. We need to do so more carefully. Since we know, for example, the general geological history of the planet and where it came from, our discussions of “god” must necessarily change. Etc.

Discussing the meaning of life is a defining characteristic of being human. Most of us settle on an answer early, usually adopted from our parents and society, and cling to it throughout our lives. The modern world, at least in industrialized societies, makes that incredibly difficult. Evolutionarily, it looks like our brains are designed to figure out what “works” in our environment and stick to it; changing world views is difficult, becuase having a world view that “works” in a given environment is adaptive.

The trick is finding the new meaning or adapting our old ones to our new knowledge of the world as it is, as that knowledge develops, in such a way that our lives still feel meaningful and fulfilling.

O Say, What Is Truth? 28 March 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Evolution, Philosophy of Science, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
comments closed

[Posted this on FLAK earlier today, and thought I’d cross-post it here.]

I find the American Pragmatists’ definition of truth to be the most helpful (esp., Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey). They were able to combine the idea that there are objective facts independent of human perception (i.e., that truth isn’t located in perception) with the idea that human perceptions of those facts changes over time (i.e., that human knowledge arises from changing experiences in their environments). They argued that, in terms of human knowledge, truth is a process and is functional. This isn’t a kind of postmodern relativism (although they were relativisitic in the narrow sense), but rather the admission that human knowledge is always incomplete. First, truth is a process because it arises in its environment in human experience, rather than existing as a Thing-in-itself. Second, it is functional, because human being know truth based on whether it “works” in their environmental experience.

P, J & D argued that science is simply a formalization and refinement of the natural way that human brains gather knowledge from and about their environments: through experiencing them and thinking about their experiences. Science merely takes that natural, biological process and makes it rigorous. But science also only works because it has built into it the notion that new experiences may bring new knowledge tomorrow.

Dewey took this a step further to argue that whereas human history is about the Quest for Certainty (i.e., humans seek to understand perfectly their environments in order to control it (a theme which has since been picked up by cognitive science and most interestingly by evolutionary psychologists)), and that philosophy & science have been about achieving Certainty. Dewey argued that, since we now understand how human brains work (he was drawing this conclusion in the 1930s, when cognitive psychology was still relatively new), and since we know that environments constantly change (which he took from Darwinism) and that our brains thereby constantly adapt to those changes, that in formal searches for truth (i.e., scientific and philosophical), we must jetisson the Quest for Certainty and embrace the fact that knowledge is always Uncertain already.

What is Known at any given time by any given group or individual is Known precisely because it Works in the environment at hand (i.e., truth as function). But that Known will constantly change as the organism (human individual or group) moves through time and the experience changes (i.e., truth as process). But the objective truth which exists independent of human perception is also knowable, if only Uncertainly and impartially, through the processes and methods of science (small-s), which are to be open to experience, hold all ideas in solution to replace them when knew information demands it, and to actively seek to understand it without ever believing you have achieved Ultimate Truth. Truth is dead the instant you think you have it and that there is nothing more that can be said; truth only works, or rather it only works Correctly, when it is understood as a Process.

Fascinating Gross-Out: Parasites 25 January 2007

Posted by Todd in Biology, Cognitive Science.
comments closed

I stumbled upon this post this moring. Not exactly great for breakfast consumption, but a fascinating run-down of a group of fungi that prey on insects, control their behavior by infecting their brain; and then a species or two of worm that likewise infect insects and control their behavior and exhibit amazing survival behaviors. Read and watch all the videos.


On Human Categories 21 December 2006

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Cultural Critique, Ethics.
comments closed

[This is in response to comments made on the Problems with Pluralism post made be C.L. and -e-. I thought it was an interesting enough converesation to merit its own post.]

I think there are some real cognitive problems that need to be addressed in both C.L.’s and e’s comments. First, our brains are set up to think in categories, indeed, without categories, thought isn’t even possible. The mental categories that we create are largely learned and largely linguistic, but not entirely. In fact, human categories are highly plastic and change and transform over time and among groups as their experience of the world changes and evolves. It helps to think of categories as “tools” that our brain uses to categorize its knowledge of the world.Secondly, I’m not convinced that categorization is in and of itself unethical or problematic. Categorization of people enables as much good as it perpetrates “evil”. For example, categorization allows people to group together to fight oppression; to educate themselves and others; to create communities. The real ethical questions should not revolve around whether or not an individual or a group creates a category; indeed, that is not possible given the evolution and structure of the human brain. Rather, the ethical questions should arise in the specific effects or consequences of a specific act or practice of categorization.

Finally, because of the plasticisty of human categories and because of the continual change of the environment (that is, it is constantly moving and changing, beyond our control), that means that creating, rejecting, maintaining, and tweaking categories, as well as the constant monitoring of the effects of the categories we use, are ongoing, neverending processes.

Thinking about Naturalism and Social Theory 20 December 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Philosophy of Science, Sexuality.
comments closed

[I’ve been trying to think through, again, how I think evolutionary theory and cognitive science could inform a more powerful and accurate social theory. This is from a conversation I’ve been having on the ASA’s Evolutionary Sociology listserve.]

I’m borrowing the word “naturalistic” and “naturalism” from the philosophy of science. It’s a particular orientation that, in a nutshell, insists that humanistic knowledge must align with and be supported by the current state of scientific research. I’m somewhat of a John Dewey specialist, one of the originators of that line of thinking, that human beings *are* animals, subject to evolution, and that science can know things about us that philosophy (humanities) cannot.  Dewey’s social theory (most fully developed after 1924; see esp. Nature and Experience) most important relies on the assumptions of what today we would call cognitive science, with the assumption that human cognition *evolved*.

In my own work (I’m a cultural sociologist, for lack of a better word), I apply these assumptions in my analyses and am currently working on an article-length piece that will propose a naturalistic social theory of culture, relying heavily on evolutionary psych/cognitive science.

My own orientation to these issues is that social sciences (esp. cultural anthro, poly sci, history, and most forms of sociology) ignore the findings of other sciences, especially cognitive science and paleoanthropology. I find that the retreat to “constructivism” is often facile and without careful thinking or understanding about how phenotypes come to be (for example) or the interaction of human cognitive processes and meaning formation (for another example).  BUT, having read a lot of sociobiology, I think that there is still big problems with a lot of sociobiology, which likewise tends not to account for the power of human cognition to transform human environments (both social and physical). In other words, observing the behavior of a marmot isn’t the same as observing human behavior, because human brain evolution actually enables us to create meaning systems (and concomitant practices) that are maladaptive and/or out of touch with reality. More simply put, human cognition (and by extention, culture) allows human beings to act in ways that do not match their “nature” and which are in fact biologically maladapted.  Further, sociology and anthropology and history have done a lot of work over the past 200 years trying to figure out how meanings (symbols, practices) move through time and work to shape interaction and social structure. I firmly believe that much of their findings are still valid, but need to be revised by accounting for what we know from the biological sciences. And sociobiologists need to take that 200 years of work seriously as well, and see that much of the understandings of social science are actually quite necessary in explaining human social-biology.

I do not believe with constructivists that perception is completely socially constructed; nor do I believe with the cruder forms of sociobiology that it is purely biological (genetic, brain morphology, etc.).  I think some of the most interesting thinking along these line is being done by geneticists who are trying to work out the complicated dance between the gene and the environment in producing a phenotype.

Likewise, I think that a naturalistic sociology would work to describe (and maybe explain?) the complicated dance between the genetic, hormonal, embodied human, and it’s social environment and meaning systems (i.e., cultures), including who the social environment can shape phenotypic expression; and how the genotype actually limits the power that a social environment can have and also limits what kinds of social and cultural arrangements would be adaptive (or at worst, evolutionarily neutral).

Full disclosure: Much of my feelings along these lines (and perhaps my own personal narrative which led me to explore this area) come from the fact that I’m gay. The social constructivist explanation of homosexuality makes absolutely no sense to me, when it’s carried beyond the obvious, that different societies in different times and places make sense of sexual desires differently. But to argue that the desire itself is social in origin borders on the absurd. I think that homosexuality is a good illustration of how the biological limits