In the interview below with anthropologist Dan Sperber I allude to the “naturalistic paradigm” in anthropology. What does this mean? Sperber, along with Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer and Laurence Hirschfield are anthropologists who treat culture as an outgrowth of a natural and reducible process mediated by the human mind. Sperber often speaks of the “epidemiology of representations.” He examines the dynamics which constrain the transmission of cognitive representations within and between cultures, in short, memetics with an awareness of the limits and biases of the mind as elucidated by cognitive psychology.
The difference between the naturalistic paradigm and the standard social science model employed within cultural anthropology today is detailed very well in the short book Theological Incorrectness, by Jason D. Slone. Slone’s book is an elaboration on his doctoral thesis, where he argued that people often represent ideas about god(s) in their minds which are at sharp variance with their professed creeds. Despite the putatively narrow focus of Slone’s work the first third is an incisive critique of the standard anthropological program which is emphasizes “thick description” and “local pecularities” at the expense of general assertions and insights about human behavior. As Scott Atran notes, the problem with the localized model which emphasizes culturally based differences and mutual unintelligibility because of the lack of common references is that the very act of perception of difference indicates that those outside the culture can intuit the general character of that culture without being of that culture. In other words, the very act of going beyond assertion to argument implies knowledge and understanding which is denied by the argument!
The school of naturalistic anthropology deviates from this self-refutation and takes a step back from the continuous process of critique as it attempts to synthesize the findings of cognitive psychology, anthropology and evolutionary psychology. It assumes that humans have universal cognitive modalities which are constrained and canalized by biological points of departure. Our capacity for abstraction and system building is buffered by the nature of our intuitions about the world around us, and the semantic distinctions we make often have more to do with coalition building than a genuine difference of ontologies.
In short, while some would assert that the seminal function to analyze is:
Culture(input) = behavior
The naturalistical model might assert that the central dynamic of study is:
Mind(input) = culture
In other words, cultural is a function of the inputs into the human mind, as opposed to mind being conditioned by cultural filters.