How cultural is cultural epidemiology? The case of enculturation

When discussing about cultural epidemiology with informed colleagues, I often come to think that they tend to underplay the extent to which cultural epidemiological accounts can integrate enculturation and other cultural phenomena that are generative of culture.

Here is a key claim of cultural epidemiology: understanding, learning and memorising what others communicate or transmit are micro-cognitive processes at the basis of cultural phenomena, and these cognitive processes are strongly constrained by the properties of the mind. Cultural epidemiologists have especially worked on specifying the consequences of universal properties of the mind for culture: naive theories and the memorisation of religious beliefs for instance; or face recognition and the success of masks as cultural artefacts. However, what is understood, learned and memorised is also dependent on those properties of the mind caused by previous enculturation. This is nearly a truism: one can learn better to read if one already knows the alphabet, one processes differently a sentence in French if one knows the language that if one does not, and, more controversially, and can more easily learn how to build a canoe, if one already knows what each part is made for. True, most of the time these things are learned in concert – but transmitted information is nonetheless processed sequentially, and the order of the elements in the sequence is sure to matter.

This has at least the following consequences:



1. Generative entrenchment (the expression comes from William Wimsatt):
As learning and acculturation happen, the properties of the mind change, and so does the potential for further learning. People are not only learning new things, they are also learning to learn, as education scientists like to say. Enculturation refers to more psychological phenomena than the incremental acquisition of transmitted, cultural, beliefs and values. Enculturation and learning in general, have consequences on the generative mechanisms sustaining cultural evolution. There is a feedback loop, here, since the generative mechanisms sustaining cultural evolution can themselves be the product of culture – through enculturation. Of course, this remark on generative entrenchment does not lessen the relevance of evolutionary psychology for the study of culture, but it leads to re-emphasising the role of cognitive development.



2. The cultural determination of cognitive tracks
Cognitive tracks are cognitive causal chains that are more likely to occur than others, given a range of input. In his 1998 article, "Cognitive tracks of cultural inheritance: how evolved intuitive ontology governs cultural transmission", (American Anthropologist, 100, pp. 876-889) Pascal Boyer emphasizes the role of intuitive ontologies as forming the cognitive mechanisms that shape cognitive tracks. But the more general question is about which cognitive mechanisms are already in place in a given community and thus likely to shape cognitive tracks.
The relevant cognitive mechanisms cannot be idiosyncratic – because these have no effect at the population level – but they need not be universal. For shaping cognitive tracks, it is sufficient that the cognitive mechanisms be shared by a fair amount of the people in a community. This is exactly what happens with enculturation: well-distributed ideas in the community have consequences not just one what people believe, but, to some extent, on how people think.
Max Weber's study on protestant ethic provides an example of cognitive track shaped by enculturation: it argues that religious ideas about afterlife can have effects on personality formation, and then on economic behaviour. From a distribution of theological ideas, there evolves a distribution of ideas about oneself (e.g. as being chosen), which inform the cognitive mechanisms at work in making economic decisions. Such cognitive mechanisms are dependant upon previously learned theological ideas. Capitalism, might say Weber, is generatively entrenched in protestant theology.

It seems to me that cultural epidemiology is the framework that is best equipped to account for the role of enculturation, not just as an effect of cultural phenomena, but also as a cause. It may be one of its best advantages with regard to its competitors in the study of cultural evolution.

But this point has not been made clearly by cultural epidemiologists, who focused exclusively on little variable features of the mind as factors of cultural evolution. This is certainly why some of my colleagues came to underestimate cultural epidemiology's ability to account for culturally entrenched cultural phenomena.


  • Joeri Witteveen 31 July 2009 (07:24)

    As I am told I am one of Christophe’s “informed colleagues” who is skeptical about the ability of cultural epidemiology to successfully (and informatively) integrate the “ecological” side of stabilizing mechanisms for culture, I am happy to see this post. Christophe is surely correct that the scepticism – or at least mine – is due in large part to the focus on innate psychology as a populational stabilizer of public representations. Indeed, Dan Sperber (2006) stresses that this is what distinguishes cultural epidemiology from other approaches to modelling cultural inheritance, like dual inheritance theory: “The difference between Boyd and Richerson’s approach and ours is, I believe, one of emphasis rather than a general disagreement. Still, cognitive factors – and hence deeper psychological levels than those involved in preferences – do deserve emphasizing, because they are crucial to the kind of fine-grained explanation of cultural facts that anthropologists rightly seek to provide.” There are of course good reasons for cultural epidemiology to have focused on innate psychology, since it has allowed tapping into a vast store of frontier research from the cognitive sciences. As cultural epidemiology matures, it could always expand its focus to explore what is now often simply grouped under “ecology” or “the environment”. And to be sure, the role of ecological factors has not been neglected altogether. For instance, later in the same article Sperber gives a few examples of the roles of the environment in shaping culture, some of which are themselves cultural: “The evolution of cooking is made possible by that of agriculture, the evolution of some forms of hunting by the domestication of dogs, the evolution of furniture by that of housing, the spread of spam by the evolution of the Net, each time novel environments bringing together new opportunities and new constraints.” I think Christophe is right to urge a dynamical integration of these “new opportunities and new constraints”. The notion of generative entrenchment captures the phenomenon that [i]by being constraining[/i], a process, procedure, practice or product [i]can provide new opportunities[/i] for further development of social and cultural phenomena. Entrenched processes can be generative; their (material) products feature as “scaffolds” (in one literal sense, and in an indefinite number of metaphorical ones) for the other (often more specific and local) cultural phenomena. Wimsatt & Griesemer (2007) discuss in detail two case studies to which these ideas can be applied. I concur with Christophe that one place where the influence of “enculturation” could play a large role is in the channeling of cognitive tracks of cultural inheritance. That could be a first step towards a more inclusive cultural epidemiology. But I think that just taking enculturation seriously is not to fully embrace the consequences of generative entrenchment. The point being that different components of our life-long cognitive development by learning are differentially entrenched. We do not just learn to learn, but we learn to learn to learn to learn to…. learn, all life long. Some of these learned components are very basic, tapping straight into a widely shared psychology. Higher “layers”, acquired on top of more basic ones, have the potential to show more variation. When we discover cognitive tracks are importantly shaped by encultured individuals, one of the pressing questions is why there are such higher “levels” of cultural inheritance whose (local) stability cannot be solely explained in terms of our biologically inherited psychology. Sperber (1996) and Christophe himself (Heintz 2007) have given an account of institutions that goes some way toward explaining such phenomena; it allows us to see some structure inside the ecology. But what I think the institutional account does not yet fully appreciate is, roughly, the multi-leveledness of the institutions in the environment. The dependencies of more local, more specific institutions on more widespread and general ones could teach us important things about how stability is created and what diversity is possible. Talk of “layers” and “levels” should proceed with scare quotes. Evolutionary biology has begun to take seriously the importance of evolution at multiple levels at a time, and though time (in the form of evolutionary transitions). I think this is a development that may have a useful counterpart in theorizing about cultural evolution, although the analogy is anything but direct. Biology is messy, but culture seems to be even more so. Still, case studies in specific domains could be used to explore how “the environment” can be further structured for use in our models. What this implies for cultural epidemiology I don’t pretend to know. Maybe there is some use in exploring systematic, hierarchical dependencies between Co-evolving Connected Cultural Cognitive Causal Chains (CCCCCCs) 🙂 ? Maybe an expansion of the theoretical toolkit brings in more problems than it brings better explanations; the question is whether [i]useful[/i] idealizations can be made. Or maybe I’m chasing chimeric explananda, and cultural epidemiology does not need further conceptual enrichment. Unless the latter will be convincingly defended, I think explorations like Christophe’s are very useful. If successful, they could give cultural epidemiology an edge over those other approaches to studying cultural evolution that rely on heavy-duty black-boxing to keep their mathematical models tractable. Refs. Heintz, C. (2007) Institutions as Mechanisms of Cultural Evolution: Prospects of the Epidemiological Approach. Biological Theory, 2 (3) 244-249. Sperber, D. (1996). Explaining Culture. Wiley-Blackwell. Sperber, D. (2006). Why a deep understanding of cultural evolution is incompatible with shallow psychology. in Nick Enfield and Stephen Levinson (eds.) Roots of Human Sociality, 431-449. Wimsatt and Griesemer (2007). Reproducing Entrenchments to Scaffold Culture: The Central Role of Development in Cultural Evolution. in Sansom and Brandon (eds.) Integrating Development and Evolution.

  • Christophe Heintz
    Christophe Heintz 13 August 2009 (16:37)

    Thanks a lot, Joeri, for your sympathetic comments and your thought-provoking remarks. I’d like to expand on some of the many points you raise, so here is the programme: – I will comment in this tread only about learning, enculturation and innate features of the mind (below) – I will expand on your points on the multiple causes involved in cultural phenomena in a new blog post (How cultural is cultural epidemiology-2) – I will also dedicate a new blog post to expand on your points about ecology and culture (How cultural is cultural epidemiology-3) ——————————————— Joeri notices that cultural epidemiology’s emphasis on “innate psychology“ was to show the relevance of cognitive and evolutionary psychology to the study of culture. The study of cultural phenomena can benefit from tapping into the results of psychology – but psychologists mostly study aspects of the mind that are not dependent on culture (or so they often seem to assume). Moreover, cultural epidemiologists favour certain psychological theories that give an important role to evolved properties of the mind in learning and thinking. Indeed, one of the goals of cultural epidemiologists is to convince social scientists relying on some version of the standard social science model that culture is constrained and shaped by universal properties of the human mind. With this programme in mind, however, one can either: – insist on there being innate mechanisms that, in different environments, produce different cultures. This is the point pushed forward by several evolutionary psychologists. Or – still consider social learning as providing one of the main cause of cultural phenomena, but showing that learning, social or not, is enabled and constrained by innate properties of the mind. This is the research direction that cultural epidemiologists pushed forward. Generative entrenchment catches this idea that the innate aspects of human psychology have an effect on what is learned and also on what is learned through learned learning skills and further on. There is, as Joeri says, scaffolding (Wimsatt’s terminology, again). Note that, with such psychological scaffolding, the bases of the scaffold may be changing with cognitive development. Whether it is the case and how it is done is an empirical question. My own bet is that cognitive plasticity does not go as far as to permit drastic changes of the bases of the scaffolding. In any case, most skills and properties of the mind result from both genetic factors that canalise cognitive development, and input from the environment that generate learning. So the empirical question can be “to which extent is such and such psychological trait dependent on cultural input?”, which is more fine grained that the innate versus learned distinction. Moreover, one could argue that several evolved abilities develop normally (that is, so as to perform the function for which they evolved) only in environments that provide social inputs – the ability to speak a natural language for instance.