Dan Sperber

Paul the Octopus, relevance and the joy of superstition

So, as you all know, Spain beat the Netherlands and won the World Football Cup in Johannesburg on July 11, 2010. As most of you may also know, this victory was predicted by a German octopus named Paul. Paul was presented before the match with two transparent boxes each baited with mussel flesh and ...

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“Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!” A reply to Frans de Waal

I am used to being attacked by fellow anthropologists for having a naturalistic approach and for arguing that cognitive science, experimental methods, and evolutionary theorizing are highly relevant to anthropology’s pursuit. Some of these attacks have been quite violent (one, in l’Ho...

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Believing Maurice Bloch on doubting, doubting him on believing

My friend Maurice Bloch and I have been arguing since even before we first met in the 70s. What makes it worthwhile is that there is much we agree on, and, once in a while, one of us causes the other to change his mind on some issue. There has been one issue however where I have failed to convince ...

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Innocents fornicating and apes grieving

In his novel Abbé Mouret's Transgression (La faute de l'abbé Mouret, 1875), Emile Zola has a young priest, Serge Mouret, and a teenage girl, Albine, fall in love with each other without any understanding of what is happening to them. Neither of them knows anything about sex - ...

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Varieties of disbelief

On March 15, the Washington Post website put a link to a small ethnographic study by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola entitled "Preachers who are not Believers." In this remarkable piece, the authors present interviews of five protestant pastors who have lost their faith, and analyse ...

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Block and Kitcher review What Darwin Got Wrong by Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini

Given the strong reservations that most social scientists have towards evolutionary biology, they might welcome Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini's new book, What Darwin Got Wrong (2010), as they once did Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin famous article, "The Spandrels of San ...

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Jingle Bell – Punjabi Tadka

When we started this blog, we hoped that anthropologists among our readers would be willing to contribute 'pictures of the week', photos (or videos) that would illustrate in a suggestive manner a theme of cognition-and-culture relevance, but we had very little success and, sadly, we have ...

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Language faculty? Semiotic system? Or what?

To what extent does the use of language involve a language-specific ability, to what extent is it subserved by a more general symbolic or semiotic system? This is an old and ongoing controversy to which an article pre-published online in PNAS on Nov. 18, 2009 (doi: 10.1073/pnas.0909197106) and ...

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Grieving animals?

Chimps line up to watch as Dorothy, who died of heart failure, is wheeled away. Picture: Monica Szczupider, in the National Geographic Magazine (Nov. 2009) The National Geographic Magazine reports: "On September 23, 2008, Dorothy, a female chimpanzee in her late 40s, died of congestive ...

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Proper names in mind, language and culture

Proper names are a standard topic of anthropological research, focusing on the variety of naming systems across cultures and on the role of names in social relationships and verbal interactions (for a recent collection, see The Anthropology of names and naming, edited by Gabriele vom Bruck and ...

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Inverse correlation between norms and behaviour?

We know, of course, that people don't strictly abide by the norms they publicly express: the flesh is weak, and so on, but, from an anthropological point of view, it would be surprising to see a complete disconnect between norms and behaviour. Even more surprising would be to see a reverse ...

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Evolutionary psychology under attack

Since yesterday, a new thread of email exchanges is circulating among evolutionary psychologists under the title "Newsweek attack on evolutionary psychology." Geoffrey Miller informs us: "Journalist Sharon Begley is publishing a long, very negative, rather muddled attack on evoluti...

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