Culture in Mind

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"Together with Roy D’Andrade (1981; 1995), Bradd Shore (1996) and other ‘cultural models’ thinkers, Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn have risen to prominence within a movement straddling the divide between anthropology and psychology. In seeking to unify these disciplines, such scholars repudiate what they see as outmoded doctrines about ‘the psychic unity of mankind’. Cognition, they assert, is ethnographic (Shore 1996). ‘Neural network theory’ – alternatively known as ‘connectionism’ (Rumelhart et al. 1986) – forces abandonment of naïve ideas about innate cognitive architecture. The brain self-organizes during maturation and development, acquiring structure by internalizing local cultural models (Laughlin et al. 1992). Imagine, for example, relying only on Roman numerals in attempting complex arithmetical calculations. As strategies were devised, the mind would settle into a pattern quite unlike that based on arabic numeracy. There is clearly a sense in which ‘mind’ is internalized culture.

The ‘culture in mind’ (Shore 1996) approach stands diametrically opposed to the school of thought known as ‘evolutionary psychology’ (Tooby 1985; Pinker 1997). As if Alan Turing (1950) had teamed up with William Hamilton (1964) and Robert Trivers (1971), Pinker belongs to a movement seeking to link the artificial intelligence revolution of the 1950s-1960s with the more recent ‘selfish gene’ (Dawkins 1976) revolution in the life-sciences. Following the success of The Language Instinct (1994), Pinker’s How the Mind Works is an engrossing, enjoyable and openly partisan account of the mind as a product of evolutionary design." (


Culture in Mind vs. Evolutionary Psychology

Chris Knight:

"Both psychological anthropology and evolutionary psychology proclaim the unification of knowledge. In place of ancient and outmoded dualisms – ‘mind’ versus ‘matter’, ‘culture’ versus ‘nature’ – they promise a coherent, intelligible scientific picture. Unfortunately, by tugging in opposite directions, they tear the canvas apart. Psychological anthropology strives for unity by collapsing ‘mind’ into ‘culture’. Mind, for this school, is internalized cultural patterning – ethnographic and hence variable (Shore 1996). Evolutionary psychology seeks unity on precisely the reverse terms – by collapsing ‘mind’ into ‘nature’. Defiantly essentialist, it construes both body and mind as coded in the genes. Where learned structure is acquired, this can only be within limits set by innate cognitive design. Mind, for evolutionary psychology, is those natural, species-specific computations which Homo sapiens is designed by evolution to perform (Pinker 1997).

Rather than debate with the enemy, each contestant in this dispute disdains to acknowledge the other’s existence. In the case of Strauss and Quinn, the nearest they get is a reference to Chomskyan linguistics, in connection with which they caution against going ‘too far in assuming hardwiring’ (p. 81). Not one of Noam Chomsky’s specific publications is mentioned, and it is clear that his name functions as a surrogate to license an attack on their real target.

Connectionist models ‘as they stand now’ are too soft on the unmentionable proponents of innate cognitive architecture:

- It may be that we are born with propensities to attend to and represent certain features of the world, but these initial propensities are only neural first guesses that can be modified with experience. If that is the case, one problem with connectionist models as they stand now would not be that they are underconstrained but that they are over-constrained because their inputs have fixed representations (Strauss & Quinn 1997, 81-2).

Over in the opposite camp, meanwhile, Pinker engages in mirror-image acrobatics in his bid to avoid acknowledging ‘cultural models’ theorists. The nearest he gets (pp. 311-12) is to touch on linguist George Lakoff’s Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Lakoff (1987) points out, reasonably enough, that the Australian Aboriginal linguistic category from which his title is derived cannot be natural. The lumping together of ‘women, fire and dangerous things’ is a cultural artifice. Extending his argument, Lakoff goes on to suggest that linguistic categories in general are socially constructed.

For Pinker, any such idea is anathema. ‘Many anthropologists and philosophers’, he acknowledges (p. 308), ‘believe that categories are arbitrary conventions that we learn along with other cultural accidents standardized in our language’. His counter-attack is that this cannot be so since ‘categories would be useful only if they meshed with the way the world works’.

What might appear to be cultural fictions, he insists, are in fact nothing of the sort – they are just abstract outcomes of rule-systems for processing information about the real world:

- Systems of rules are idealizations that abstract away from complicating aspects of reality. They are never visible in pure form, but are no less real for all that (p. 312).

For Pinker, then, linguistic categories are a natural consequence of ‘the way the world works’, explicable therefore in straightforward adaptationist terms.

One might reasonably have expected Pinker to acknowledge that for any socialized human, cultural schemas including social fictions are precisely an aspect of ‘the way the world works’. But no. In Pinker’s universe, social constructs have no place. The lens of evolutionary psychology simply screens them out. What remain are individuals with their innate competences and their thoughts. Such persons inhabit an external environment made up of other thinking, speaking individuals, together with non-human animate and inanimate entities. And that is all. The distinctively human world of intangibles (such as promises, oaths, curses, totems and gods) falls outside the purview of this kind of Darwinism. Evolutionary psychology and psychological anthropology in this way mirror one another. On each side, the territory across the boundary is declared not to exist, a stance which may explain a seeming paradox. While fighting on behalf of nature and culture respectively, each camp vehemently repudiates this very dichotomy. For evolutionary psychologists, the dichotomy is false since cultural models – even supposing such fictions are entertained – are basically irrelevant to cognitive function. For cultural theory, the distinctions and oppositions central to Darwinism are at best superficial, at worst divisive and pernicious. On a deeper level, as eastern mystics have long understood, all is one and one is all.


Evolutionary psychologists, while presenting themselves as cautious scholars on their home ground, respond by parodying politically backward stereotypes when on the rampage outside their specialist domains. This is true not only of the self-professed racists and reactionaries. Not even Darwinism’s liberals can resist the knockabout fun and games. Take, for example, Pinker (p. 305) on ‘shamanism’ – a topic properly considered within social anthropology. Ignoring the vast scholarly literature on this fascinating theme, he explains the phenomenon as follows: ‘Tribal shamans are flim-flam artists who supplement their considerable practical knowledge with stage magic, drug-induced trances, and other cheap tricks’.

The belief systems of preliterate peoples – their view, for example, that certain anthropomorphized principles are ‘sacred’ – are demoted to the status of hoaxes. Where constructs diverge from ‘the real world’, they must be quackery. On this issue as most others, Pinker is joined by Dawkins (1993), for whom religion of any kind is a computer bug – a cultural virus malevolently introduced to parasitize gullible minds. To social anthropology as a profession – I need hardly stress – such doctrinaire verdicts on the subject of other peoples’ beliefs are interesting only as an example of western folk-prejudice, not scholarship or science.


Genuine evolutionary scientists, faced with the fact that humans have traditionally invested immense energy in their trance-dance and other mythico-ritual domains, would be expected to seek some kind of adaptive explanation (Knight et al. 1999). But for Pinker and his colleagues, all cultural schemas and corresponding competences are simply beyond the pale. Unable to explain the evolutionary emergence of symbolic culture as such, the proponents of evolutionary psychology are left with little option but to portray music, rhythm, song, dance, trance, art, mythic narrative and just about everything else distinctive of human consciousness as non-adaptive if not positively harmful! These Darwinians throw out Darwinism precisely when it encounters its most exciting challenge." (

More Information

  • Book: A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning, by Claudia Strauss & Naomi Quinn, 1997. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; ISBN 0-521-59409-X hardback, £50 & US$64.95; ISBN 0-521-59541-X paperback £16.95 & US$24.95, 323 pp.