Cultural Evolution Evolution Psychology

TC paper - The psychological foundations of culture

The psychological foundations of culture

TC make the case that a full and accurate science of culture requires a recognition of the important role played by the information-processing mechanisms of the mind.

They note that historically in the social sciences, the perspective has been taken that the human mind starts off as something of a blank slate, with content being written into it by external culture. They attribute this perspective in part to the (erroneous) deduction that since infants are born apparently knowing nothing and yet grow into contentful adults, therefore all content must have come in from outside sources.

They note that in contrast, the evolved mind is full of content-rich, adaptive information-processing systems, and that the growth of humans in knowledge and abilities from infancy is the result of a complex interplay between the information available in the environment and the mechanisms of the mind. To take just one example, although we clearly get the words of our local language from our environment, we contain evolved language acquisition mechanisms that enable us to do this. They note that the explanations often given in the social sciences explaining human behaviours and faculties, such as "learning", "culture", "rationality" and "intelligence" are not really explanations at all, but rather substitutes for the required elaborations of how the mechanisms of the mind actually work.

In a wide-ranging, fascinating paper, they suggest among other things that culture, rather than being viewed as a unitary phenomenon, can be usefully subdivided into a number of different categories:

  1. "Metaculture" - the elements of our culture attributable to human universals, for example parental care, sexual attraction, the consumption of food, play, participation in coalitions and so on
  2. "Evoked culture" - alternative, domain-specific mechanisms, triggered by local circumstances, for example different food-sharing dynamics depending on the characteristics of locally-available food sources.
  3. "Epidemiological culture" - what some others may term "transmitted culture". This is the closest match to what is currently recognised in the social sciences as culture: "Observer's inferential mechanisms construct representations similar to those present in others." However, note that the focus is on the fact that it is the observer's mechanisms that are determining what internal representations they form, in contrast to the standard social science view that culture is in some way writing itself into people. An important corollary is that the "domain-specific mechanisms influence which representations spread through a population easily and which do not." People are not simply passive absorbers of an independent "culture".

They go into considerable depth on why we should expect many or most of the mechanisms of the mind to be "domain-specific", rather than "domain-general" (including the evolutionary necessity of minimizing 'combinatorial explosion' and the 'frame problem'), and they outline methodologies for discovering and describing the domain-specific mechanisms of the mind.

A long, but essential read, almost a mini-book.

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