From Neuroanthropology blog

Review article Tunnel vision

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature.

London: Penguin. 509 pp.

The gap between sociocultural anthropology and biological/physical anthropology is deep, but fairly recent. In the 1870s, Tylor enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the Darwinists; he was inspired by, and in turn inspired, Darwin himself. Later generations also engaged in respectful dialogue until, roughly, the end of the Second World War.

After the war, biological approaches to human nature and culture were discredited in public life, only to reemerge with a string of popular books by the likes of Desmond Morris and Lionel Tiger, culminating in the last chapter of E. O.Wilson’s scholarly work Sociobiology (Wilson 1975), where the great entomologist pleads for a reintegration of the social sciences into the mother science, that is to say biology.

The relationship between sociocultural anthropologists and some evolutionary biologists (who we maycall neo-Darwinists) has been tense and occasionally hostile since then.

In the following essay, ‘The growth of culture and the evolution of the mind’ (Geertz 1973b), Geertz develops a perspective on the evolution of mind. He begins with the familiar contrast of freedom versus determinism, where he approvingly quotes Ryle,who says that it is rubbish to posit the two as opposites, since a golfer can perfectly well obey the laws of ballistics, the rules of golf and play with elegance (57). It occurs to me that Steven Pinker could have said that. (In fact, E.O. Wilson once did.)

Geertz then elaborates on the view of human evolution also presented in the previous essay: culture began, embryonically, already with proto-humans millions of years ago, whose brains were a third the size of ours. Through mutual reinforcement – culture contributed to the growth of the cortex (presumably through changing the circumstances of natural selection) and vice versa – and rendered us flexible and generally endowed. ‘Though it is apparently true enough that the invention of the airplane led to no visible bodily changes, no alterations of (innate) mental capacity, this was not necessarily the case for the pebble tool or the crude chopper, in whose wake seems to have come not onlymore erect stature, reduced dentition, and a more thumb-dominated hand, but the expansion of the human brain to its present size’ (67). Finally: ‘In fact, this type of reciprocally creative relationship between somatic and extrasomatic phenomena seems to have been of crucial significance during the whole of the primate advance’ (68) and ‘The human brain is thoroughly dependent upon cultural resources for its very operation; and those resources are, consequently, not adjuncts to, but constituents of, mental activity’ (76).

Put differently, there is no way of being human apart from the culturally specific ones. The question is, where does this view depart from that of Pinker? "

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Wednesday Round Up #128

By neuroanth

Posted: November 10, 2010

C! 2007 European Association of Social Anthropologists.