When Does Psychology Drive Culture?

Olivier Morin

in Creating Consilience

Published in print December 2011 | ISBN: 9780199794393
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199919338 | DOI:

Series: New Directions in Cognitive Science

When Does Psychology Drive Culture?

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Naturalistic approaches to culture face an adjustment problem: many entities commonly found in the social sciences (traditions, institutions, social norms, etc.) do not seem to have any plausible counterpart in the natural sciences that are closest to humans (biology and psychology). The natural world seems too tiny to accommodate the furniture of the social world. There are two ways around this problem. The first consists in trying to add new elements to our biological and psychological toolkit that may explain cultures, institutions, and norms. For example, one might hypothesize that special faculties of imitation and processes of group-selection allowed cultural norms to emerge and constrain individuals, or that humans have a special capacity to create institutions by means of collective intentionality. Cultural epidemiologists, in contrast, try to give descriptions of cultural phenomena that do not include such unwieldy objects as cultural forces, collective intentions, mind-coercive norms, and such. A culture, in the epidemiological view, is a distribution of representations within a population. Being a statistical abstraction, this distribution lacks an essence and causal powers. Cultural representations are transmitted in the same way as representations that never become cultural; they just spread further and survive longer. They do so, not because they travel the superhighway of imitation—there need not be such a highway—but because their content makes them more attractive to individual human minds. People from different cultures may view the world differently in many cases, but that is not because their culture puts some sort of constraint on their ideas; in these cases, their ideas and their culture are the very same thing. The epidemiological approach is a way to deflate our common views about culture, so that it no longer seems to outstretch the natural world. The two strategies are not incompatible. When trying to fit two pieces together, it makes sense to shrink one of the pieces while enlarging the other.

Keywords: cultural transmission; traditions; evolutionary psychology; cultural epidemiology

Chapter.  8339 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy

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