dan_sperber's picture
Social and Cognitive Scientist; CEU Budapest and CNRS Paris; Co-author (with Deirdre Wilson), Meaning and Relevance; and (with Hugo Mercier), The Enigma of Reason
Culture is natural

A number of us — biologists, cognitive scientists, anthropologists or philosophers — have been trying to lay down the foundations for a truly naturalistic approach to culture. Sociobiologists and cultural ecologists have explored the idea that cultural behaviors are biological adaptations to be explained in terms of natural selection. Memeticists inspired by Richard Dawkins argue that cultural evolution is an autonomous Darwinian selection process merely enabled but not governed by biological evolution.

Evolutionary psychologists, Cavalli-Sforza, Feldman, Boyd and Richerson, and I are among those who, in different ways, argue for more complex interactions between biology and culture. These naturalistic approaches have been received not just with intellectual objections, but also with moral and political outrage: this is a dangerous idea, to be strenuously resisted, for it threatens humanistic values and sound social sciences.

When I am called a "reductionist", I take it as a misplaced compliment: a genuine reduction is a great scientific achievement, but, too bad, the naturalistic study of culture I advocate does not to reduce to that of biology or of psychology. When I am called a "positivist" (an insult among postmodernists), I acknowledge without any sense of guilt or inadequacy that indeed I don't believe that all facts are socially constructed. On the whole, having one's ideas described as "dangerous" is flattering.

Dangerous ideas are potentially important. Braving insults and misrepresentations in defending these ideas is noble. Many advocates of naturalistic approaches to culture see themselves as a group of free-thinking, deep-probing scholars besieged by bigots.

But wait a minute! Naturalistic approaches can be dangerous: after all, they have been. The use of biological evidence and arguments purported to show that there are profound natural inequalities among human "races", ethnic groups, or between women and men is only too well represented in the history of our disciplines. It is not good enough for us to point out (rightly) that 1) the science involved is bad science,
2) even if some natural inequality were established, it would not come near justifying any inequality in rights, and 3) postmodernists criticizing naturalism on political grounds should begin by rejecting Heidegger and other reactionaries in their pantheon who also have been accomplices of policies of discrimination. This is not enough because the racist and sexist uses of naturalism are not exactly unfortunate accidents.

Species evolve because of genetic differences among their members; therefore you cannot leave biological difference out of a biological approach. Luckily, it so happens that biological differences among humans are minor and don't produce sub-species or "races," and that human sexual dimorphism is relatively limited. In particular, all humans have mind/brains made up of the same mechanisms, with just fine-tuning differences. (Think how very different all this would be if — however improbably — Neanderthals had survived and developed culturally like we did so that there really were different human "races").

Given what anthropologists have long called "the psychic unity of the human kind", the fundamental goal for a naturalistic approach is to explain how a common human nature — and not biological differences among humans — gives rise to such a diversity of languages, cultures, social organizations. Given the real and present danger of distortion and exploitation, it must be part of our agenda to take responsibility for the way this approach is understood by a wider public.

This, happily, has been done by a number of outstanding authors capable of explaining serious science to lay audiences, and who typically have made the effort of warning their readers against misuses of biology. So the danger is being averted, and let's just move on? No, we are not there yet, because the very necessity of popularizing the naturalistic approach and the very talent with which this is being done creates a new danger, that of arrogance.

We naturalists do have radical objections to what Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have called the "Standard Social Science Model." We have many insightful hypotheses and even some relevant data. The truth of the matter however is that naturalistic approaches to culture have so far remained speculative, hardly beginning to throw light on just fragments of the extraordinarily wide range of detailed evidence accumulated by historians, anthropologists, sociologists and others. Many of those who find our ideas dangerous fear what they see as an imperialistic bid to take over their domain.

The bid would be unrealistic, and so is the fear. The real risk is different. The social sciences host a variety of approaches, which, with a few high profile exceptions, all contribute to our understanding of the domain. Even if it involves some reshuffling, a naturalistic approach should be seen as a particularly welcome and important addition. But naturalists full of grand claims and promises but with little interest in the competence accumulated by others are, if not exactly dangerous, at least much less useful than they should be, and the deeper challenge they present to social scientists' mental habits is less likely to be properly met.