July 15, 2010

Sperber and Hirschfeld on Culture, Cognition and Evolution

Culture, Cognition, and Evolution
By Dan Sperber & Lawrence Hirschfeld

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.

Although population-level phenomena influence the development and implementation of cognition at the individual level, relevant research on these phenomena has not been systematically integrated within the cognitive sciences. In good part, this is due to the fact that these issues are approached by scholars from a wide range of disciplines, working within quite different research traditions. To the extent that researchers rely on methodological and theoretical practices that are sometimes difficult to harmonize (e.g., controlled laboratory versus naturalistic observations), the influence of these insights across disciplines and traditions of research is often unduly limited, even on scholars working on similar problems. Moreover, one of the basic notions that should bring together these researchers, the very notion of culture, is developed in radically different ways, and is, if anything, a source of profound disagreements.

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