Culture: A scientific idea ready for retirement?

Every year the website asks their panel a general question on science and/or society. The 2014 question was: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?“ I did not read (yet) all the answers, but I was surprised to see that two of them, from Pascal Boyer and John Tooby, were one and the same: culture. One could take the answers as a provocation of two evolutionary psychology-minded scholars against mainstream cultural anthropology (which I’d subscribe to). However, knowing Boyer and Tooby’s work, and since, when people ask me what my research is about, I tend to answer “human culture” or “cultural evolution”, I think I have to take this challenge quite seriously.

On one level, I agree completely with the answer: “culture” cannot be considered as an unproblematic explanation of any phenomenon. I was recently reflecting on the fact that, while I consider myself an atheist, I find it often unpleasant to hear – let alone pronounce – profanities. Rationally, I know that they are simply a series of sounds, but still I cannot avoid being annoyed. The imaginary naive anthropologist would say: of course, it is your culture! (I am Italian, and I received a then standard Catholic education). But this is exactly what we want to explain: why is this specific “cultural stuff” (being bothered by profanities) and not others (say going to church or pray) still present?

I think that every reader of this blog would agree that it is not useful to use culture as an explanation: we can not explain X (my problematic relationship with profanities, the readiness to perceive interpersonal threats in Southern USA, etc.) with “culture”. As Boyer writes in his answer, “that such processes could lead to roughly stable representations across large numbers of people is a wonderful, anti-entropic process that cries out for explanation”. However I feel like this is a starting point. I would be interested in X as a “cultural stuff”, and then try to explain it. Boyer and Tooby do not seem to agree: “culture”, in their view, is not just mistakenly used as an explanation. It is not a scientific concept at all. Tooby writes:

“Attempting to construct a science built around culture (or learning) as a unitary concept is as misguided as attempting to develop a robust science of white things (egg shells, clouds, O-type stars, Pat Boone, human scleras, bones, first generation MacBooks, dandelion sap, lilies…).”

This is a quite serious accusation. Try to build a unitary explanatory framework for egg shells and first generation MacBooks (who is Pat Boone?) seems indeed a desperate endeavor. Are we in such a situation? An accepted working definition of culture, for people interested in a naturalistic explanation of it, is usually something like “socially transmitted information”. I know this will not satisfy everybody but, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that one can mostly agree with it (I do).

Now, if we use this working definition to decide what belongs to culture, we need to acknowledge that the set has somehow fuzzy boundaries. “Social” transmission does not pick out precisely some pieces of information or behaviors from others. One of the clearest and most important message of recent cognitive anthropology is that socially transmitted information is in general not simply copied from one head to another: it is reconstructed using previous individual knowledge. Or, even if we want to give more importance to the “copying” aspect, some information will be more likely to spread because of certain common features of human minds. The same Pascal Boyer has convincingly argued, for example, that minimally counter-intuitive agents, i.e. agents that mainly conform to our intuitive, universal, expectations of how an agent should behave and appear, but with a few violations of the same expectations, are more memorable than completely intuitive ones as well as completely counter-intuitive ones. Superman can fly and has problems with kryptonite, but his behavior is understandable (he feels lonely, he has a strong sense of justice, etc.). Shall we consider Superman (or supernatural beliefs, which, according to Boyer is successful – partly – for the same reason) less “cultural” than other domains where individual predispositions are less important? This is clearly not very satisfying.

Also “classic” cultural evolution research has emphasized the importance of social and individual learning being intertwined. There is also a name for this: Roger’s paradox. The anthropologist Alan Rogers (find the original paper here) showed, with a simple model, a counter-intuitive result: in a changing environment, in a population in which individuals are individual learners or social learners, the fitness of the latter, at equilibrium, is equal to the fitness of the former, so that there would not be selection for social learning. In short, this is due to the fact that social learners are “information scroungers” that spare the cost of individual learning but cannot track changes in the environment. While the fitness of individual learners is constant (the benefit of preforming the correct behavior minus the cost of tuning to the environment), the fitness of social learners depends on the composition of the population: the more social learners, the less reliable information, the smaller the fitness. At equilibrium, Rogers shows, the composition of the population is such that the fitness of social and individual learners is the same. As social learning is everywhere, this has been called a paradox. The “solutions” of Roger’s paradox (see, for example, here and here) all basically involve the possibility that individuals are both social and individual learners.

It seems, then, that it is quite difficult to use “social” transmission to isolate what culture is, as individual learning, as well as universal features of human psychology, are likely to play a role in all instances of social transmission. One could answer: yes, of course we know this is important, culture is “socially transmitted information (in which individual learning, etc. have an important part)”. However, the problem with this definition is that, like in the white-things-science of John Tooby, everything goes. Indeed the diffusion of first generation MacBooks is a good topic for cultural evolution studies, as well, I suppose, as the diffusion of possible uses for egg shells (I checked Pat Boone on wikipedia: definitely a topic for us).

Is the situation for “culture” as a scientific concept that bad? I think it is quite interesting to take this criticism seriously and to ponder on the possible problems of the “socially transmitted information” definition. However I am not so pessimistic. In a next post (as this became way too long) I will propose a couple of alternatives. One is to drop the “socially transmitted” part (as I suppose anthropologists like Dan Sperber would suggest), and one – which I prefer – involves the idea that studying “culture” does not imply defining a specific domain, but defining how “cultural stuff” are studied, what kind of questions are asked, what kind of properties we are interested in. Other scientific disciplines, say physics or chemistry, not only study all white things, but all things, of all colors, and I do not think this would be an argument to retire them. Stay tuned!


  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 5 January 2015 (17:11)

    Thanks for this post! You say that standard models of cultural evolution, as springing from Rogers’ work, take full account of the importance of individual cognition in cultural learning—the fact that, as you put it, social and individual learning are “intertwined”. I doubly disagree.

    Social and individual learning are not intertwined because, fundamentally, they are not distinct at all. Social learning is individual learning, albeit a very special case thereof. Individual cognition does not stop working when we observe others, when we communicate, or when we argue. Of all the many animals we know that are capable of social learning, all of them are also capable of learning directly from the non-social world. The contrary—a species that would evolve a capacity for imitation but nothing else besides—is an almost unthinkable possibility (at least for me). To learn from others is simply to apply a certain cognitive toolkit to social cues. That toolkit can also serve (at least in part) to learn in various non-social ways.

    Which is why Rogers’ “paradox” (and the solutions to it) strike me as ultimately unhelpful. The paradox’s premise, if you ponder it, is cognitively absurd: who would seriously think that a breed of pure imitators could evolve? A breed that would be completely unable to learn directly from the world, but be condemned to learn everything through social cues alone? Show me the mutant that could learn by imitation but not in any other way. Show me the capacity for imitation or communication that could not be used to do anything else besides copying others. To see is to learn, to walk is to learn, to move is to learn… And any imitator can do these things.

    So, of course, the rejoinders to Rogers are right. Social learners can also learn individually, and the “paradox” is solved. Yet, this way of putting things can be very misleading. Why? because it may lead us to think that cognition (human cognition in particular) has two modes, so to speak.
    Mode 1: Obdurate reliance on my own cognitive devices and whatever information nature gives me.
    Mode 2: Blind imitation (possibly with a few crude heuristics—e.g., copy the prestigious, copy the many).
    That is indeed how some solutions to Rogers’ paradox frame the issue: agents can switch between Mode 1 and Mode 2, and Mode 2 wins. Therefore, “social learning” (Mode 2) outperforms “individual learning” (Mode 1), and simple imitation instincts evolve.

    This, I think, is misleading for two reasons. First, because Mode 2 involves individual cognition just as Mode 1 does. Mode 2 just takes into account some cues that Mode 1 ignores, cues that come from others. More important, though, is the fact that we seldom have to choose between cognitive autarchy and blindly following the prestigious or the many. We communicate, we argue, we select, we transform what we hear or see. Our many cognitive biases never disappear. We learn from others, but with our own cognitive devices, and with our own ends in mind.

    Is this familiar point related to the Boyer and Tooby culture debate? Not much, perhaps. Yet it does speak in favor of a fuzzier view of culture than is typically promoted by cultural evolutionists. If there is no clear line of demarcation between individual and social learning, then there is no clean divide between transmitted culture and ideas and behaviors that simply arise when common cognitive biases meet common human problems.

    P.S. On “white objects”, and culture not being a natural kind. I really didn’t get Tooby’s point here. I’m quite happy to work on a fuzzy set of phenomena such as culture. The set of white things is a fuzzy object, to be sure, but most white things do have one interesting property in common (they reflect back white light, mostly) and physicists have found pretty interesting things to say about white light—things that few people expected (for instance, that light coming from white objects is a mix of colored lights). Sure, color theory does not have interesting things to say to everyone interested in one particular type of white stuff: Macintosh or Pat Boone geeks won’t care for it much. Is that a problem? Does that mean color theory is null and void? I don’t see how that would follow. Color theory captures some interesting commonalities of white objects, enough to justify studying them as a group. Same, mutatis mutandis, for culture.

  • Thom Scott-Phillips
    Thom Scott-Phillips 5 January 2015 (19:37)

    Thanks Alberto for the blog post!

    I see that Olivier Morin has got in before me on the social vs individual learning issue. Like him, I have never quite grasped the interest in this question because, as Olivier says, the distinction between the two does not seem real to me, at least not when you start to think seriously about the cognition involved (i.e. not only in terms of crude ‘biases’).

    So since Olivier has dealt with that nicely, let me reply to another aspect of the post. You adopt here the definition of culture that is dominant in the cultural evolution literature, “An accepted working definition of culture, for people interested in a naturalistic explanation of it, is usually something like ‘socially transmitted information'”. Well, actually, no, I don’t think this is accepted. It is accepted in what you call the “classic” cultural evolution literature, but it has been disputed by others who are equally committed to a scientific/naturalistic approach to culture.

    Specifically, in their comments on Richerson and Boyd’s book Not By Genes Alone, Sperber and Claidiere (2008) argued instead that culture is, contrary to the used definition, not a thing that can be transmitted between individuals (as DNA) can. Instead, culture is a property. Specifically, it is a property of mental representations and their public expressions: these items are cultural to the extent that the same or similar versions of them are shared by members of a group. A god, for instance, is cultural, rather than individual, to the extent that many members of a group mentally represent it in similar ways. Hence, some gods are cultural, and others are not.

    Thus, I agree with Tooby that culture is a fuzzy term. But I also agree with Olivier that this is not a problem. The right response to Tooby is to say that this fuzziness sets out what is to be explained. Why are some mental representations and their public expressions widely shared and stable (and hence at one end of the contiuum), why are some (in the middle) partly shared and party stable, and why are others (at the other end) idiosyncratic and liable to change? What properties do items have that causes them to occupy particular points on this continuum? These are the questions that a scientific explanation of culture must address.


    Sperber, D. & Claidière, N. (2008). Defining and explaining culture (comments on Richerson and Boyd, Not By Genes Alone). Biology & Philosophy, 23(2), 283-292.

  • Alberto Acerbi
    Alberto Acerbi 6 January 2015 (11:23)

    Hi Olivier and Thom,
    thank you for your comments. I think that, despite the differences, we all agree on the main point I was trying to make. While it is true that the set of things defined as “cultural” (I like your “a property not a thing” slogan, Thom) is a fuzzy one, this is not a reason to retire “culture” as a scientific concept.
    Let me here discuss quickly two – partial – disagreements.
    (1) The usefulness of Roger’s paradox. Olivier, you think that the premises (i.e. a clear separation between social and individual learning) are “absurd” and “too implausible”, but then this is what, in general, is assumed that naive standard cultural evolution would claim. If anything, to me, Roger’s model (and its “solutions”) tells to the naive standard cultural evolutionist that thinking in term of the two “modes” generates paradoxical results, so we need to be more careful.
    Also, importantly, the results are generated by a formal model, not by a verbal argument, so perhaps the need to simplify comes from here. I am not a modelling extremist, but sometimes it is good to stop arguing and try to put your ideas in equations (or in some programming language…). Roger’s model makes use of a different set of tools (maths, evolutionary modelling, etc.) to reach the same (or similar) conclusion (social learning and individual learning can not be separated) that you reach pondering on cognition.
    (2) Social VS individual learning and the epistemological prominence of the “cognitive” (this is more interesting, in the end I do not care too much what people think about Roger’s paradox…). I am more than willing (as I think I did in the original post) to accept that the set of things defined by culture is more fuzzy than what a rigid (and implausible) social VS individual learning definition would imply. On the other side, I am not sure I am ready to eliminate the distinction completely.
    The basic argument is, if I understand correctly, that the same cognitive abilities underpin both individual and social learning (this is interesting to me, I think it is a recurrent point of discussion, e.g. in the selection VS attraction topic). I agree completely, but my question is: why the prominence of the “cognitive” aspect? In this specific case, if information A derives mainly from some form of interactions with, say, a non-living environment, and information B derives mainly from my interactions with my conspecifics, even if they are cognitively processed in the same way they are different for another reason, and they can be called “individual” and “social”. This distinction can be as much as (or more, or less) interesting than the distinction based on cognition.

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 6 January 2015 (22:25)

    Thanks Alberto for this stimulating post. I cannot resist joining Olivier and Thom in discussing it. Let’s elaborate on the idea that culture is a property, not a thing and then ask, couldn’t culture also be the set of things having this property (accepting, of course fuzzy sets).

    Culture is a property. What property? Take all practices, artefacts, mental states in a population over time that have some informational content. Ask how are their contents related? Well, they are all links in many causal chains where for an item to be a link in such a chain is to owe some of its content to having been at least partly caused by previous links in the chain. So in a chain of perfect copying, as exists now on the internet, each new token of, say, a given youtube video owes its whole content to the token that has been copied in producing it. In most cases however, in particular before the internet, items having informational content have a more complex informational aetiology, owing some of their content to one causal chain, some to another causal chain, and some to the more or less idiosyncratic process of their production in the mind or through the behaviour of one or several individuals. Take a very idiosyncratic item: someone’s original dream. Even that item owes quite a bit of its content to being a causal descendent of conversations, stories, images, and so on. It is cultural too. You get my point. The more an item gets its informational content from the causal chains in which it occurs, the more cultural it is. Note that to be 100% cultural in this way, it should typically owe all of its content to a single chain, otherwise the recombination itself is likely to involve some idiosyncratic construction. The general point being that in a human population (not in other cultural animals though) everything, from dreams to songs and youtube video, is cultural to some varying degree. The property of being cultural is quite an interesting one and a proper object of scientific study (as is the property of being white).

    Is the set of items that are cultural an interesting thing too and a proper object of scientific study? Well the set of all items that are more or less cultural in a human population is the set of all representations, artefacts and practices, however general or idiosyncratic, that occur in that human population. Everything that humans do is more or less cultural. This set doesn’t correspond to anyone’s idea of culture – it is way too broad -, but it is a proper object of study, the study being that of the flow of information in a human population. What about narrowing down the set to items that are cultural above some principled threshold? Good luck. I don’t believe there is such a threshold. Culture isn’t even a fuzzy set of things, it seems. I can think of possible (not excellent though) defences of culture as a fuzzy set, but let’s hear from the other participants in this discussion.

  • Alberto Acerbi
    Alberto Acerbi 7 January 2015 (11:54)

    Thanks for joining the conversation Dan. I find your comment very compelling. Since everybody seems to agree that culture is a property, it is obviously important to understand what property exactly is. I was not very convinced by what Thom seemed to imply in his comment (i.e. the property of a practice/artefact/mental state – let’s call it a “thing” – of being more or less diffuse/stable in a population), while I am when you say it is the property of a thing of getting “its informational content from the causal chains in which it occurs”. I am also well disposed to accept that, given that culture is this property, it does not define a set of things, even a fuzzy one, as everything, in humans, would be cultural to some degree.

    Just one thought. We all agree, as Olivier clearly pointed out, that social learning is not the product of some specific cognitive mechanisms, distinct from individual learning. I proposed that may be a way to indicate where the information one uses to produce a new thing come from, and indeed to me this is practically indistinguishable from “getting the informational content from the causal chains”. As I am trying to understand how all this fits (or not) with “standard” views on culture, I am wondering whether this would be an acceptable definition of social learning or not.

  • Pascal Boyer
    Pascal Boyer 7 January 2015 (14:47)

    Cognitive blindness
    Many thanks to Alberto for the comments. As far as the learning issues are concerned, I do not have much to add to Olivier Morin’s, Thom Scott-Phillips’s and Dan Sperber’s lucid responses. I will just take the opportunity to mount one of my favourite hobby-horses, the problem of cognition-blindness.
    Confusions and uncertainties about cultural stuff are made possible by cognition-blindness, by that particular blind spot that many social scientists have, when it comes to cognitive function. In that respect, they are being human, all too human – it is part of our cognitive makeup that most of our cognitive makeup is completely transparent to us. But when you try to do science, this transparency is a terrible handicap. Our commonsense, folk-psychological picture of how minds acquire information is computationally incoherent, to a large degree impossible, and invariably misleading.
    Cognition-blindness is reponsible for many of the horrors we hear and read in the domain of cultural evolution – e.g. that culture is transmitted because people internalize norms, because they engage in ‘learning’, because they can imitate, because they copy prestigious individuals, or they copy what works, and so forth. If people tried to formulate these common ideas in computationally tractable terms, they would see how problematic they are. But there’s the rub – folk-psychological notions like ‘copying’ or ‘learning’ seem to describe self-evident, straightforward processes, so that many people think using such terms actually describe mechanisms.
    On another point, there is a possible misunderstanding in our discussion, that stems from the notion of fuzzy sets: The point raised by John Tooby and me is not that the domain of ‘cultural stuff’ is fuzzy – our point is that, fuzzy or classical, the concept would not be of any scientific value. “Bald men” is a fuzzy (!) set, but understanding the physiology of balding is a coherent scientific problem. Unlike balding, “socially transmitted stuff” does not seem to us to denote a set that is amenable to a coherent general set of explanatory models. As a consequence of being cognition-aware, we know that most of the action in explaining cultural transmission will reside in specialized inference-systems. This will produce the many-splendored patterns of transmission that we can observe, from lexicon to etiquette, from aesthetics to theology, from moral rules to mathematics. Information in each of these domains (and there may be dozens or hundreds of relevant domains – we do not know yet) is transmitted in a highly distinctive manner, because of the different properties of the systems involved.
    Obviously, there may be a few general principles that hold for most of that stuff, but in contrast to Dan’s suggestion, I am fairly skeptical about their number and their explanatory depth. Still, we do not know – because that is largely an empirical question that would be much easier to address if we had more epidemiology of culture research.
    Which leads me to a more general moral. When not swayed by Edge’s promise of instant worldwide fame, I am rather hesitant to discuss the nature of culture. On the one hand, it seems necessary to be clear about what ‘cultural stuff’ is, if only to avoid the horrors mentioned above. On the other hand, as Thom points out, the question we address is, Why are some mental representations and their public expressions widely shared and stable, and others less or not at all? I think this is best answered by empirical research on specific domains of cultural information.

  • K. Mitch Hodge
    K. Mitch Hodge 7 January 2015 (15:19)

    Dear all,

    I am grateful that this discussion has come up because it has FINALLY allowed me to put my finger on what has been bothering me about many such discussions in which I have participated. It is vogue for academic disciplines to be “in crisis,” usually meaning that a clear demarcation of their discipline has become blurred. I have been involved in such conversations regarding culture, religion, politics, (human) nature, and even cognition. Clarity struck me upside the head when I read this post and the linked posts by Boyer and Tooby. I finally see that such “meta” discussions are only pseudo-philosophical, and should be taken with a grain of salt. This is, of course, a strong indictment against questions posed by some great minds in a variety of disciplines, so hopefully I will be able to support this indictment with the appropriate evidence.

    Instead of posts and articles by academics stating that our fellows need to give up on trying to scientifically study something called “religion,” “politics,” “learning,” “culture,” or what-have-you, what we need to be saying is “Leave your naïve realism (whether metaphysical or scientific) at the door.” Naïve realism is the idea that all the words that we use refer to, or denote, things in the world, and it seems to be humans’ cognitive default. While this is significantly less problematic when referring to a particular (i.e., something physical of which there is only one such as my dog The Heidi Monster), it is horribly problematic when dealing with universals (i.e., general terms which can be attributed to multiple items such as the color white). If one is not epistemologically diligent, one can end up saying all sorts of bizarre things such as one studies “white things” as if white things are white because they participate in a Platonic universal form of WHITENESS. What we have learned in this case is that white is light of a specific (or range of) wavelength. While it makes no sense to the scientifically-minded to study the former, the latter is a perfectly acceptable “object” of study. What is important to realize in this latter case is that what specific (range of) wavelength that is placed under study as WHITE is entirely arbitrary. The cut-off is wherever the researcher decides.

    But, the introduction of the word “science” makes this discussion more problematic. We TEND to think that things investigated by science are REAL things in the REAL world. Unfortunately, however, many of the objects of scientific study are what Dennett has called “useful fictions,” such as centers of gravity or mental states. No matter how skilled the surgeon, she could not (EVER) excise your center of gravity or any one of your mental states. This is not a problem with skill or lack of technology! In fact, it is not a problem at all! Both centers of gravity and mental states are useful scientific fictions. So, the question becomes is “culture” (or what-have-you) a useful scientific fiction, and if so, how? I think the answer is a resounding “YES!”

    Of course, it must be immediately realized that such words as “culture” or “centers of gravity” are not useful because they denote something physical in the physical world (after all, imagine your confusion if someone demanded that you hand over your center of gravity!). They are useful not as concrete things or explanations, but as descriptions or captions. To explain this point, I need to back up a bit.

    In reality, a particular winged-horse named Pegasus does not physically exist. So, if someone told you that they were studying Pegasus, what could they mean? What they would/could mean is that they are studying representations of Pegasus—that is literary and painted representations of Pegasus. Now, how the academic chooses to demarcate representations of Pegasus is entirely arbitrary. They could restrict their study to only those representations which use the name “Pegasus,” or they could choose to include all representations of winged-horses. Additionally, they could choose to include representations of winged-horses with a single horn (a flying unicorn). All that is important to realize here is that the demarcation of “Pegasus” versus “non-Pegasus” is entirely arbitrary, dependent on researcher, and that PEGASUS serves as a description or caption to a specific but arbitrary spectrum of representations. More importantly still, it is not necessary in the slightest whether there is, was or will be a real, physical winged-horse named Pegasus. One can still do a legitimate study of Pegasus.

    Additionally, if we take the work of Nelson Goodman seriously, we cannot hang our hat on similarity to link the objects of our study. After all, for all the ways that two things may be similar, they are dissimilar in an infinite number of ways (for instance, think of all the ways a painting or photograph of a particular person is dissimilar from that particular flesh-and-blood person). Our brain, upon processing the photograph, “decides” which similarities are relevant and which are not. (I could go into a whole discussion here about the distinction that Dennett makes between what works versus what is true, but I think most readers will have no difficulty understanding the connection and my point). Moreover, we would not be in the least uncomfortable if someone looked at a photograph of my dog and declared “That is The Heidi Monster!” regardless of the fact, for obvious reasons, a photograph of a thing is not the thing itself. Instead, our brain establishes and links what it considers to be the relevant similarities and describes and/or captions those similarities (to the whole object) accordingly. In other words, our brain has no difficultly describing and/or captioning a picture of The Heidi Monster as THE Heidi Monster.

    In the same way, we have no problem understanding some artifact of human activity as cultural or religious or political. If we are epistemologically vigilant, we will understand “cultural,” “religious,” or “political” as a description and/or caption of the activity rather than a denotation or, worse, an explanation. We will understand that some relevant (but still arbitrary) connection has been established between two or more objects of study that need not be established (or relevant) as a connection for all objects which might be described/captioned under those specific terms.

    The short, after long, of what I am trying to say is that instead of giving up the study of culture, religion, politics or centers of gravity, we need to give up our naïve metaphysical and scientific realism, no matter how culturally endorsed it may be! Once done, we can commence our study of human culture.

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 7 January 2015 (16:06)

    Alberto, you ask about social learning and suggest it might correspond to “getting the informational content from the causal chains.” I would resist the temptation to go this way for the following reasons:

    1) As implied by Pascal in his comment, “learning” isn’t a good topic for scientific study. Various mechanisms involved in information acquisition are. Moreover, a lot of the information we acquire we acquire by generating it internally even if drawing on information gained from observation of from others (not to mention genetically transmitted information, about gravity for instance).

    2) Social learning isn’t one of these genuine mechanisms Pascal talks about. Everything human gets some of its content from the causal chains of social transmission, and only some of it, and it does so in a great variety of ways though a great variety of social mechanisms. So, nothing is fully “socially learned” and everything human is somewhat “socially learned.” I find it impossible to take the notion of social learning seriously, even if I am aware that it may have played a useful role. There is a great paper to be written arguing for retiring the very idea of “social learning.”

  • Andrew Buskell
    Andrew Buskell 7 January 2015 (20:22)

    I have to say that this is a great conversation, and I’ve very much enjoyed the various comments put forward. So thanks to everyone that has taken part. That being said, I do have a few quick questions/responses.

    Re: The Social/Individual learning distinction. This might just echo what Alberto and Dan said above, but it seems like there might be some confusions going on here.

    First, we can agree that it is evolutionarily implausible that social learners would not also be individual learners. That seems incontrovertible. But I think aside from this point, we have to move carefully.

    Indeed, just because these two capacities are evolutionarily related, doesn’t mean that they involve the same set of mechanisms or cognitive processes. Social learning might involve a whole swathe of new, evolved cognitive mechanisms specially suited to picking up on the observed behaviour of others. Witness some of the fine-grained determinations of social learning in Hoppitt and Laland (2013) and you might be convinced that there is, at least, great variation in the kinds and structures of various social learning capabilities. I myself think that some of these various social learning capabilities might come around because of distinct mechanisms. So, in other words, social learning and individual learning – to the extent that they are distinct – might supervene on different sets of mechanism

    Next, you might wonder whether these two kinds of learning can be made distinct in behaviour. I think that they can. We can do all sorts of trial-and-error learning individually that does not seem to implicate learning from others. Similarly, we can engage in pure instances of social learning: the social transmission of facts via dialogue, for instance.

    But even if we think these two kinds of learning can be made distinct, we might question whether they can be made so in everyday life, or in evolutionary history. Here I think things become much more complicated, and indeed, I think the distinction breaks down. Nonetheless, I don’t think the modelling practice of Boyd, Richerson, and Robert are entirely without merit, as might have been suggested. As far as I can tell, Boyd and Richerson never suggested that individual learning and social learners formed distinct populations. The only thing that changes in their models was the extent to which a particular individual relied on individual learning versus social learning (something they attribute to ‘genetic change’, which I don’t find all that convincing).

    I take it that it is this final notion that is problematic – that the social learning/individual learning distinction plays a straightforward, unproblematic role in evolutionary history. I don’t think it does. It is complicated by all sorts of things, not least of which niche-construction. But this seems to leave untouched the idea that we can experimentally intervene on particular mechanisms of social learning, or that we can’t construct situations where either individual learning or social learning are made distinct behaviourally.

    There is certainly more to be said here, but I don’t want to bore everyone with a huge and elaborate commentary! And besides, I want to ask something, too…

    Re: Culture as a property.

    I have a quick question here for those that espouse the ‘culture is a property’ view. I’m not quite sure I understand this claim. Is it the idea that cultural things (material/psychological representations on some views) have a particular genealogical relationship? And being in some lineage is what makes a representation ‘cultural’? I’m not sure I understand this view, nor Dan’s claim that a dream can be ‘cultural’ in this sense. But this might be because I’m not sure how to make sense of the notion that dreams can be related genealogically to other kinds of cultural/social cognitive causal chains (as he calls them).

    But I’m also confused about the notion of something being ‘more’ or ‘less’ cultural. How can this be? Is it, as you seem to suggest Dan, that it is participation in a single cultural cognitive causal chain? But why would this make something *more* cultural than something that participated in several cultural cognitive causal chains? To use an example, the property of being a tiger is a genealogical one. Tigers are tigers in virtue of having tiger parents. But it doesn’t make sense to call something *more* or *less* of a tiger, even if it bred with different tiger groups. So in the case of culture, why does it make sense to call something more or less cultural?

    I might be mistaken here in thinking that folks are pursuing a genealogical property, here. Thom, you seem to hold something different, based on similarity. I generally find those sorts of things worrying without some way of determining in what way the relevant tokens are similar.

    In anycase, I’m very curious what people have to say in response.


  • Tadeg Quillien 8 January 2015 (23:19)

    It may help to answer Andrew Huskell’s question about “culture as a property” if one compares “cultural” to “genetic”. No phenotypic trait studied by biologists can be said to be 100% genetically determined, because genes don’t magically produce their phenotypic effects but do so in a specific developmental and environmental context. So all phenotypic traits lie on a continuum of genetic determinism, with some traits being “more genetic” than others, for instance having blue eyes vs wearing a tatoo. There is a certain set of genes that predict fairly well whether someone will have blue eyes, but presumably correlations between a certain gene and wearing a tatoo are harder to come by (but certainly exist).

    I think this is the same kind of reasoning that underlies Dan Sperber and Nicolas Claidiere’s argument about degrees of culturalness. My phenotypic traits are not entirely determined by my genes, but causally influenced by a myriad of other factors; in the same way, a dream about Batman is not entirely determined by culture (here, comic books), but draws a lot of its features from the dreamer’s daily experience, the physiology of his REM sleep, the sounds in the room where he lies, etc. In this sense the dream is “a bit cultural”.

    One might say that a tiger-leppard hybrid is 50% of a tiger, because tiger ancestors account for only half of its gene pool, so it doesn’t look like being genealogical forces a property to be all-or-nothing.

    Being 100% cultural implies that the item descends from a single causal chain because if one cultural item gets its content from two different ancestors, the process of combining the two ancestors involve somewhat arbitrary decisions (e.g. shoud I include 40% of cultural item A and 60% of item B, or the other way around?), which themselves count as new information because they are not derived from already existing cultural information.

    On another note, I agree with most contributors to the debate that trying to define culture from basic cognitive mechanisms like “social learning” is not necessarily a good idea. It is implausible that culture should turn out to be reducible in the same way heat was found to be kinetic motion and water H20. Instead, it might be helpful to consider “culture” as being like “life”: a concept that does not do much explanatory work on its own, is almost impossible to define, but refers to something important for which we should have a materialistic framework.

  • Andrew Buskell
    Andrew Buskell 9 January 2015 (11:10)

    Just a quick reply here, as I don’t want to get too far away from the subject matter of this post.

    First, thank you for your message Tadeg.

    From what I can tell, your first suggestion seems to be that we can carve up and quantify the cultural based on the causal contributors to a particular trait. That might be so. In which case, your proposal to look at the various contributors is sound (epigenetic, genetic, cultural, and so on).

    Your second point seems to be something else, though. And this is what confuses me. Sure, a tiger-leopard hybrid is something that we can sensibly say is 50% tiger and 50% leopard. And this makes something new, a teopard, or what have you. But I don’t understand how something that is cultural already (as you admit) can then be *more* or *less* cultural. If cultural item A is 100% cultural (a ‘pure line’ if you want to call it that) and cultural item B is 100% cultural (similarly), then how can the combination (40% A, 60% B) be less than 100% cultural? Where has all the culture gone? This seems to be a real puzzle.

    I also have to say I’m not sure what your example is supposed to be showing (sorry!): why is the resulting representation ‘new’, and in what sense of ‘new’ do you mean (is it a new CCCC? -a new token of an already existing CCCC?)?

    Here’s my diagnosis. I think that there is a confusion (at least, I’m confused!), here, between notions about the causal contributors to culture and what makes something cultural in the first place. My question was targeted more at the later, but I can see now how it addresses both. I was asking whether Dan (and maybe Thom?) think that something becomes cultural because of a particular genealogical fact: that a particular cultural representation has descended from other cultural representations. I asked this, because it seems to lead to confusing statements, like the one you and I are currently addressing.

    Hope that makes my question at least somewhat clearer — thanks again Tadeg for your post!

  • Tadeg Quillien 9 January 2015 (16:21)

    My guess is that indeed we deal with a genealogical property, but not in the strong sense where “culture” is inherited in the same way alleles of gene are. It is the very fact of getting some informational content from an “ancestor” (regardless of whether the latter is cultural or not) that makes something cultural.

    In my example, the new item is “new” because its content is different from any other cultural item (or if it happens to be similar to another cultural item it is not because it is a copy of this item). For instance if we mix cultural items AAAAA and BBBBB to produce ABABB, then we have a new item. ABABB is cultural because it gets some of its content (being made of As and Bs) from its ancestors, but is not 100% cultural because the arrangement of letters (ABABB as opposed to BABAB or AABBB) is not inherited from the ancestor items.

  • Carles Salazar 13 January 2015 (12:20)

    Congratulations to all contributors for this excellent conversation. Let me just get back to the relationship between culture and social learning as developed in Alberto’s initial post. An important distinction that should be emphasized is not so much that between individual and social learning, which certainly are very similar, but between social and cultural learning, as argued by Tomasello et al (1993). Whereas social learning can be found in other non-human animals, as it merely involves learning from another individual, cultural learning should be seen as quite distinctive of the human species, for it implies learning not from but through others. In other words, whereas learning from another individual means simply learning from his or her body or bodily movements, learning through him or her entails learning from his or her mind, i.e. learning from him or her as a mental agent. That distinction is crucial (and, interestingly, it was overlooked in Rogers’s paradox) because it is what enables the accumulation of knowledge as it passes on from individual to individual, that is, it enables the development of culture. How is that possible? Now the capacity for learning through other individuals, or from them as mental agents, originates in our Theory of Mind module, which essentially enables any one particular individual to appropriate the content of another individual’s mind. Thus cultural learning requires a specific cognitive mechanism, different from whatever is needed for both individual and social learning (i.e. causal cognition or Theory of Body). In so far as all individuals in a particular community have this capacity and have been appropriating the content of each other’s minds since very early stages in the evolution of the species, the (individual) knowledge that any one individual can acquire through this recursive mindreading may not be infinite but it is definitely incalculable. And that is what makes cultural learning radically different form social learning. Think of all the individual knowledges that are accumulated in any item of cultural knowledge, such as a computer, a cathedral or a scientific theory. For instance, my capacity to understand any scientific theory, such as Einstein’s theory of special relativity, originates in my previous knowledge of physics and mathematics as I learned it from my teachers, who in turn learn it from theirs and so on. Notice that if I happen to be a successful learner, I shall be able to understand Einstein’s theory without having to go through all the exponential number of individual knowledges that made it possible. But notice as well that that theory could only be produced thanks to all those bits of knowledge that were handed down from generation to generation until the present, or until the time I get it myself form my teachers. That is the magic, or perhaps we could even say the paradox, of culture, or of cumulative cultural knowledge. This is not just a matter of sharing mental representations. Ants in an anthill do probably share mental representations but that by itself does not turn them into a cultural species. It is the exponential capacity for knowledge accumulation that makes human cognition unique. And that is why, it seems to me, the concept of culture cannot be retired in any way, for I fail to see how this cumulative process, unique to the human species and which clearly surpasses the capacities of any single individual mind, could be accounted for otherwise.

    Tomasello, M, A.C. Kriger & H.H. Ratner. 1993. “Cultural learning.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16(3): 495-552.

  • Chris Kavanagh 14 January 2015 (07:33)

    Coming from a background in Social Anthropology I can’t help but feel a severe case of deja vu in a lot of the current debates surrounding the usefulness of the term ‘culture’. Indeed, its hard not to see some irony in advocates of scientific approaches approximating previous postmodern critiques. I don’t say this to be disparaging of the discussions above (which I am enjoying), nor to argue that we shouldn’t care about creating clearer definitions of terms. But it does seem like we are treading some well trodden intellectual paths, with apparently little interest in the copious writings of the previous explorers of this area. It’s true that the cognitive field doesn’t share core assumptions (or agree with the general approach) of postmodern social/cultural anthropologists but to me at least it seems that there is an evident echo of that school of thought in the kind of the objections Boyer & Tooby present. This doesn’t make the objections necessarily invalid but it should at least lead us to ask if there is anything ‘new’ to the current round of anti-culture sentiment.

    Turning to the critiques: One of Tooby’s main objections seems to be that ‘culture’ is often erroneously presented as a causal explanation and in doing so the real issue of the mechanisms of behaviour and learning (social and otherwise) are overlooked. While he is certainly correct, this argument seems to ignore the fact that a person behaving in a certain way ‘because of their culture’ is a valid explanation, it is just one operating on a different level than the more fine grained description he advocates. Why do I not find it strange that Black Taxis function like small buses in Belfast? Because of being immersed in the culture of ‘Northern Ireland’ growing up, but how precisely did I come to gain that knowledge? Through social learning and individual experience. Both of the above answers, have explanatory power and can be operationalised in more precise academic language but the existence of one level of explanation does not invalidate the other.

    Boyer’s objection that employing ‘culture’ as a concept necessarily implies envisioning bounded, non-changing, homogenous and magic ‘cultural’ forces & entities (i.e. “if you believe in culture as a thing, it seems normal to you that culture should be the same across individuals and generations”) almost word-for-word approximates a postmodern critique and it seems equally as misguided to me. Why must I endorse precise copying of cultural information or be uninterested in the stability of certain practices just because I find it useful to have a collective concept to refer to the predominant social routines of delineated groups? The boundaries of any given ‘culture’ are invariably an analytical construct but they refer to statistical realities, something which Boyer himself acknowledges but goes on to say “is of no real use” to those that want to explain “why cultural stuff is the way it is”. Personally, I think statistical realities have much to tell us and despite assertions to the contrary, they can be explanatory on a particular level (see above). The point that there is probably no single answer to a hopelessly generic question is valid but I don’t see any reason why a researcher employing the concept of culture should be required to endorse a single universal explanation for all ‘cultural stuff’?

    Personally, I still find the arguments clearly presented by Christoph Brumann back in 1999 in the article ‘Writing for Culture: Why a Successful Concept Should Not Be Discarded’ to be as compelling as ever and to address the ‘new’ concerns, just as well as the postmodern critiques it was originally addressing.

  • Justin Lane 15 January 2015 (13:31)

    While I generally agree with Chris, I think there are a few issues that are brought up by Boyer and Tooby of further interest; mostly concerning the idea that culture can be clarified by taking a strict cognitive approach to the matter. The two issues of interest for me are 1) the idea that “culture” is a useless scientific term is indicitive of a lack of definition within the literature aiming to understand and explain “culture” more generally; particularly in light of attempts in the realm of “cultural evolution” and 2) subsequently, that culture is in some way causal.
    To set aside one issue from the start, if we can not define cultre, it can not be causal within a scientific framework. Secondly, if culture is a by-product or aggregate (or property), then “cultural objects” (presumably defined) could be causal, but there is little reason why Culture needs to be causal.
    To address the first issue. Definitional issues plague cultural evolution. Culture is one concept that is relied upon but is really unnecessary outside of it being a statement positing some explination. Most work on cultural evolution, however defined, (I think the Boyd-Richerson-esque definition of it as “socially transmitted information” is sufficient and a good starting point) is only looking at a sub-set of some cultural phenomena, ex. technology. While technology often has some sort of measurable and physical fitness measure, most cultural information-beliefs, behaviors, ritual actions, interpretations, schemas, etc. etc.,- have no comparible measure. So if anything we’re not talking about “cultural evolution” so much as changes in cultural units (which, apparently able to be selected for in cultural evolution, have also never been sufficiently defined). This lack of fitness measure also reveals an underspecification of mechanisms of selection. So it would seem that there is a lack of the units and mechanisms of selection that would be necessary for a theory of cultural evolution if culture is indeed “socially transmitted information”. (This has been said before in other words by Martin, 2006-a critique that there hasn’t apparently been taken seriously).
    Secondly, and more importantly, the idea that culture is causal. If we all agree that humans are acting based in stimuli in their environment, and that their environment consists of both the typical biological entities of interest to most biologists as well as social actors and beleifs of interest to most in the humanties; and if we all agree-just for the time being-that culture has something to do with the information shared and held by social individuals in a specific population, of course “culture” is causal. The issue isn’t *if*, the issue is then *how*. Within this framework, “culture” is potentially a useful abstraction (akin to J.Z. Smith’s views on religion).
    (You can’t stop reading as the following is mostly apathetic if there are papers to gratde) The argument really becomes, what do we gain? It seems that really, all we gain is rhetoric to talk about a large class of barely defineable phenoema. Scientifically I wouldn’t say we gain anything. We may lose clarity if anything. However, it does help to situate these studies within a larger literature about a class of human actions more generally.

    L. H. Martin “Can Religion Really Evolve? (And What is it Anyway?)” in: The Evolution of Religions: Studies, Theories, and Critiques. Edited by Bulbulia, Sosis, Harris, et al. (2006)

  • Benson Saler
    Benson Saler 16 January 2015 (15:15)

    Some years ago the anthropologist A.L. Kroeber wrote that the major contribution of anthropology to the intellectual life of the first half of the twentieth century was the elaboration and dissemination of the concept of culture. Many anthropologists, then and now, agree with him. The development of the idea of culture, however, exacts costs. The most costly cost is suggested by Pascal Boyer in his 1994 book. Anthropologists became so occupied in developing the concept of culture, according to Boyer, that they failed to develop an adequate psychology for studying the human condition.

    I think that Boyer is right. I also think that we can appreciatively read his many publications as multifaceted efforts to remedy the deficiency that he notes. I hasten to add, however, that attempting to develop an adequate psychology does not necessarily rule out the use of some concept of culture. It would be a serious mistake to attempt to convert the study of the human condition into some sort of zero-sum game. We need a sophisticated concept of culture, at the very least for reasons succinctly given by Carles Salazar. Culture, even as construct or “useful fiction,” can sustain understandings that need to be invoked in furthering our knowledge of what it means to be human.

  • Dwight Read 27 April 2015 (03:15)

    Blogs and comments on blogs tend to have a natural life cycle, beyond which there is tacit agreement that the topic is finished, but not necessarily because any final resolution has been reached. Adding to a discussion that has reached the end of its life cycle, as has this one on culture, runs the risk of simply not being of further interest; nonetheless I will take this risk.

    Evolutionists seem want to divide phenomena that change through an evolutionary process into two kinds according to the mode of transmission: properties transmitted genotypically and properties transmitted phenotypically, with the latter characterized, as some have put it “information transmitted through social learning.” The former has been extremely successful in accounting for the appearance, distribution and evolution of biological traits. Those advocating a transmission definition of culture have worked from the assumption that the evolutionary program that worked so well for biological traits will be equally successful with cultural traits defined according to the mode of transmission. As previous commentators have already pointed out, though, the matter is not quite so simple. In the case of biological traits (and to simplify substantially) the mode of transmission translates into the biological processes by which new individuals are biologically formed from genetic information transmitted via biological reproduction from previous individuals. But a translation like this does not occur (at least does not occur in any obvious manner) with social transmission. To say that culture has to do with whatever is transmitted through social learning does not say what culture is except by fiat.

    If our notion of culture is circumscribed by the mode of transmission, then the critique that culture is not a meaningful concept is valid. Clearly, not everything that is transmitted from one individual to another can usefully be characterized as being cultural. At best, culture is a subset of what is transmitted through social learning and the boundaries of that subset are not well-established. But even viewing it as a subset is not adequate as this still confounds what culture is with how culture is transmitted. Part of our problem, I think, is assuming that we need to begin by first providing an adequate definition of culture and then we proceed to work out the properties of what we have defined, as if our initial definition is formally sufficient. But because we do not yet have a good sense of what constitutes culture, as the comments here made clear, we cannot begin by first providing a formally adequate definition. Nor need we do so. We do not study “life” and “consciousness” by first providing formal definitions of what we mean these terms, but rather we revise and reformulate our understanding of the phenomena to which these terms refer as we proceed.

    We “know” that culture, in some sense exists in the sense of providing for the members of a community a shared (but not necessarily identical) framework through which individuals ascribe meaning to behavior in a manner that is understood in a similar way by other community members. We use the term “culture shock,” which Wikipedia (for what it is worth) describes as: “Culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply travel to another type of life.” The disorientation arises because things such as behavior patterns, interpretations made of behavior, expected behavior and the like, are not occurring as expected based on the “culture” into which one has been enculturated.

    In my own research, I have shown that kinship terminologies, the repository of the kinship relations that provide individuals with a social identity in their community, have an underlying grammar through which the meaning of kin terms is constructed and then expressed (as is often the case) through genealogical relations (Read 2015). Just as we learn a language spoken in common by community members by virtue of being born into, and growing up in, a linguistic community, we similarly “learn” (but not through social learning) the underlying grammar of our kinship terminology and as culture bearers, we can then use our terminology as a computational system for (among other things) working out our kin relationship to other members of our community, hence to our social identity in that community.

    Just as language learning cannot be reduced to an instance of social learning (though it does involve social learning), our kinship enculturation with regard to the grammar expressed through a kinship terminology, cannot be reduced to simply an instance of social learning. I consider a kinship terminology to be a canonical example of what we mean by a cultural object as it is not an epiphenomenon of external conditions but is the consequence of what is meant by a “cultural construct.” The grammar of a kinship terminology is unknown to culture bearers, just as in non-literate societies the grammar of a language may be unknown to the speakers of that language, but the grammar is “real” in a cultural, not a material sense. We are constrained in our use of, and where change can occur in, our kinship terminology by its underlying grammar (Read 2013).

    If a kinship terminology with its underlying grammar is not a cultural object, then what is it?

    Read, D. 2013. Reconstructing the Proto-Polynesian Terminology: Kinship Terminologies as Evolving Logical Structures. In Kinship Systems: Change and Reconstruction. McConvell, P., I. Keen, and R. Hendery, editors, pp. 59-91. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

    Read, D. 2015 Kinship Terminology. In: James D. Wright (editor-in-chief), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol. 13. Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 61–66.