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.