How Culture Makes Us Smarter

Cumulative culture gives us knowledge and tools far beyond our individual powers.

Cumulative culture doesn’t just gift our species technology that none of us could have invented; it literally makes us smarter. The products of cumulative culture include not only our physical tools but also a well-stocked library of what we might call mind tools: ideas and habits and rules of thumb, which we stamp into the gooey grey matter of our brains and which radically enhance our powers.


Posted in Cultural evolution, Cultural intelligence, Culture, Intelligence | Tagged , , ,

The emergence of hierarchical structure in human language

We propose a novel account for the emergence of human language syntax. Like many evolutionary innovations, language arose from the adventitious combination of two pre-existing, simpler systems that had been evolved for other functional tasks. The first system, Type E(xpression), is found in birdsong, where the same song marks territory, mating availability, and similar “expressive” functions. The second system, Type L(exical), has been suggestively found in non-human primate calls and in honeybee waggle dances, where it demarcates predicates with one or more “arguments,” such as combinations of calls in monkeys or compass headings set to sun position in honeybees. We show that human language syntax is composed of two layers that parallel these two independently evolved systems: an “E” layer resembling the Type E system of birdsong and an “L” layer providing words. The existence of the “E” and “L” layers can be confirmed using standard linguistic methodology. Each layer, E and L, when considered separately, is characterizable as a finite state system, as observed in several non-human species. When the two systems are put together they interact, yielding the unbounded, non-finite state, hierarchical structure that serves as the hallmark of full-fledged human language syntax. In this way, we account for the appearance of a novel function, language, within a conventional Darwinian framework, along with its apparently unique emergence in a single species.


Posted in Cultural evolution, Evolution, Language | Tagged , ,

Neanderthal genes influence brain development of modern Humans

A characteristic feature of modern humans is the unusually round skull and brain, in contrast to the elongated shape seen in other human species. By studying Neanderthal DNA fragments found in the genomes of living Europeans, scientists have now discovered genes that influence this globular shape. An interdisciplinary research team, led by the Max Planck Institutes for Psycholinguistics and Evolutionary Anthropology, brought together fossil skull data, brain imaging and genomics, as reported in Current Biology.


Read also: Research paper

Posted in Evolution, Humans, Neanderthals | Tagged , ,

There is no scientific proof that war is ingrained in human nature

Is it in our nature to go to war? Should we just accept the fact that humans have this innate tendency and are hardwired to kill members of other groups?

No, says R. Brian Ferguson, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University-Newark. There is no scientific proof that we have an inherent propensity to take up arms and collectively kill.



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The Mind in the World: Culture and the Brain

How the “outside” affects the “inside” is at the heart of many of the deepest psychological questions. In this fast-paced survey of research on how culture shapes cognition, Nalini Ambady examines the neural evidence for socio-cultural influences on thinking, judgment, and behavior. She does this by giving us numerous examples of group differences in core human capacities that are shaped by how “one’s people” engage socially.

Both the structure and function of the human brain throughout its development are shaped by the environment. The social environment, in turn, is shaped by culture. The emerging field of cultural neuroscience examines how the interplay and mutual constitution between neural and cultural forces gives rise to different patterns of behavior, perception, and cognition. The main goal of this emerging, young field is to understand how culture, which is comprised of behaviors, values, symbols, meaning systems, communication systems, rules, and conventions, is shaped by and in turn shapes the mind and brains of individuals in the culture. In order to accomplish this goal, state-of-the-art neuroscience techniques are being used to not only show how widely researched behavioral differences are manifested in the brain but also to highlight where such cultural differences are located. Research in this field has begun to rapidly uncover how psychological processes thought to be universal are affected by cultural experience and exposure at both the behavioral and neural levels. Thus, recent advances from cultural neuroscience have demonstrated how even the most basic of functions, with expected similar behavioral outcomes across cultures, can have underlying differences at the level of the neuron.


Read also: On the Effects of Cultural Experience on the Brain

Posted in Brain, Culture | Tagged ,

Why the Enlightenment was not the age of reason

On either side of the Atlantic, groups of public intellectuals have issued a call to arms. The besieged citadel in need of defending, they say, is the one that safeguards science, facts and evidence-based policy. These white knights of progress – such as the psychologist Steven Pinker and the neuroscientist Sam Harris – condemn the apparent resurgence of passion, emotion and superstition in politics. The bedrock of modernity, they tell us, is the human capacity to curb disruptive forces with cool-headed reason. What we need is a reboot of the Enlightenment, now.

Strikingly, this rosy picture of the so-called ‘age of reason’ is weirdly similar to the image advanced by its naive detractors. The pejorative view of the Enlightenment flows from the philosophy of G W F Hegel right through to the critical theory of the mid-20th-century Frankfurt School. These writers identify a pathology in Western thought that equates rationality with positivist science, capitalist exploitation, the domination of nature – even, in the case of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, with Nazism and the Holocaust.


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Practicing Urban Transformation: Places of Solidarity and Creative Traditionalism in Transatlantic Comparison

In this paper, I make use of the comparative method to discuss two social movements for urban grassroots transformation, Collectif 7‐à‐Nous in Montréal, Canada, and Project Gängeviertel in Hamburg, Germany. For my analysis, I develop and apply two concepts – terrain solidaire and creative traditionalism – to discuss the differences and similarities in how both social movements have been justifying their claims to urban property with reference to and in dialogue with local culture, local space, and local temporalities in order to withstand adverse dynamics of entrepreneurial urbanism. How have activists constructed urban imaginaries that tie the historically grounded identity of place to current practices of solidarity among local dwellers? Moreover, how have creative practices of rediscovering and rewriting local history and memory in activists’ narratives of belonging contributed to rooting their claims in local contexts and against the currents of presentist temporalities? Finally, I discuss the difficulty of activist projects and narratives in escaping the increasing tendencies of commodifying urban culture.


Posted in Urban Social Movement, Urban Transformation | Tagged ,

Immersion in Indigenous Agriculture and Transformational Learning

This article is an autoethnography of the author’s four‐year transformational educational journey ​studying, working, and conducting research on indigenous agriculture while living and participating in indigenous communities in Latin America. Autoethnographic methods are used here to explore personal identity and a sense of what constitutes “home.” As my learning journey unfolded, I was at the intersection of two worldviews—indigenous and my upbringing in the United States—while exploring modern “certainties” regarding development work in education, universal rights, and agricultural advancement. In this process, my relationship to nature and my own native soil emerged as a new perspective. Reflections, anecdotes, and art are incorporated to personalize the telling of the story. The unique value of travel for transformational learning is highlighted.


Posted in Agriculture, Indigenous knowledge | Tagged ,

Anthropology at the Edge of Words: Where Poetry and Ethnography Meet

Anthropology has seen major challenges regarding methods, epistemologies, and how one writes ethnographically. As practicing ethnographers and poets, we focus on one among many vibrant new styles of anthropological scholarship: ethnographic poetry. As poetry appears more regularly in scholarly venues, anthropologists may wonder how to create ethnographic poetry and toward what end. To address this, we begin with definitions of ethnographic poetry in relation to ethnography and ethnopoetics. We then consider how poetry may help anthropologists to write insightfully about how we and other people live. Drawing on our own poetry, and that of others, we explore how form affects meaning and ethnographic insight.


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Study of two tribes sheds light on role of Western-influenced diet in blood pressure

A South American tribe living in near-total isolation with no Western dietary influences showed no increase in average blood pressure from age one to age 60, according to a study led by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In comparison, a nearby tribe whose diet includes some processed foods and salt did show higher blood pressure into late middle age.

In the U.S. and most other countries, blood pressure rises with age, beginning early in life. Results of this study support the idea that the tendency in Westernized societies for blood pressure to rise with age is not a natural part of aging but could result from a cumulative effect of exposure to Western diet and lifestyle.


Posted in Culture, Health | Tagged ,