[Paleopsych] Edge: An Epidemology of Representations: A Talk with Dan Sperber

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An Epidemology of Representations: A Talk with Dan Sperber 

    How do the microprocesses of cultural transmission affect the macro
    structure of culture, its content, its evolution? The microprocesses,
    the small-scale local processes I am talking about are, on the one
    hand, psychological processes that happen inside people's brains, and
    on the other hand, changes that people bring about in their common
    environment-- for instance the noise they make when they talk or the
    paths they unconsciously maintain when they walk--and through which
    they interact.

    Just as the human mind is not a blank slate on which culture would
    somehow imprint its content, the communication process is not a xerox
    machine copying contents from one mind to another. This is where I
    part company not just from your standard semiologists or social
    scientists who take communication to be a coding-decoding system, a
    transmission system, biased only by social interests, by power, by
    intentional or unconscious distortions, but that otherwise could
    deliver a kind of smooth flow of undistorted information. I also part
    company from Richard Dawkins who sees cultural transmission as based
    on a process of replication, and who assume that imitation and
    communication provide a robust replication system.

    A Talk with Dan Sperber

               Dan Sperber Edge Video [10]Broadband | [11]Modem


    Dan Sperber is a French anthropologist who has focused on the more
    cognitive, more naturalist, approaches linked to evolution. "For a
    long time," he says, "my ideas were not very well received among
    anthropologists. They've been discussed a lot, but I found myself
    spending too much time with my fellow anthropologists arguing the
    basics of the field rather than moving forward in research. I got
    involved in linguistics, experimental psychology, philosophy of
    science, evolutionary biology, and lots of fascinating topics--and
    continuing also the conversation with anthropologists. Anthropology is
    a discipline that has been in crisis all my life."
    Dan Sperber's parents were both eastern-European Jews; his father,
    Manes Sperber, a famous novelist, was born in Galicia, grew up in
    Vienna, then moved to Germany. He met his mother, who came from
    Latvia, in France in the 30s . Manes Sperber was a Communist, was very
    active in the party, but left the party at the time of the Moscow
    trials. Sperber was born in France. "That's my culture," he says. "I
    am French. Still, there are French people who are much more French
    than I am. They have roots as they say, but the image of roots has
    always made me smile. You know, I'm not a plant."

    The reason he gives for having become an anthropologist is that he was
    raised an atheist. There was no god in the family. His father, Manes
    Sperber, was from a Jewish family, had refused to do his bar mitzvah,
    and he transmitted zero religion to his son, but at the same time, he
    had deep respect for religious people. There was no sense that they
    are somehow inferior. This left the young Sperber with a puzzle: how
    can people, intelligent decent people, be so badly mistaken?

    Sperber is known for his work in developing a naturalistic approach to
    culture under the name of "epidemiology of representations", and, with
    British linguist Deirdre Wilson, for developing a cognitive approach
    to communication known as "Relevance Theory". Both the epidemiology of
    representations and relevance theory has been influential and

    He is also known for his early work on the anthropology or religion,
    in which he tried to understand, in a generalist manner and in a
    positive way (i.e. without making them into idiots), why people could
    be religious. He took part in classical anthropological studies but he
    also argued from the start that you have to look at basic innate
    mental structures, which, he argued, "played quite an important role
    in the very possibility of religious beliefs, in the fact that, more
    generally, beliefs in the supernatural fixate in the way they do in
    the human mind, are so extraordinarily catching".

    Sperber's "catchiness", a theory he has been exploring for a
    generation, connects with Malcolm Gladwell's idea of a "tipping
    point". "I've never met Gladwell, " he says, "but when his book came
    out, many people sent me the book, or told me to read it, telling me
    that here's the same kind of thing you've been arguing for a long
    time. Yes, you get the kind of epidemiological process of something
    gradually, almost invivibly spreading in a population and then indeed
    reaching a "tipping point." That's the kind of dynamic you may find
    with epidemiological phenomena. Still, I don't believe that Gladwell
    or anybody else, myself included, has a satisfactory understanding of
    the general causes of the dynamics of cultural distribution."

    " Now, if I could just write with the slickness of Gladwell, and coin
    one of his best-selling titles such as Blink! or The Tipping Point. .
    . but I guess I would also have to give up trying to convey much of
    the hard substance of my work. Oh well..".

    Edge is pleased to present An Epidemiology of Representations: A Talk
    with Dan Sperber.

    -- [12]JB

    DAN SPERBER, Directeur de Recherche au CNRS, Paris, is a French social
    and cognitive scientist. He is the author of Rethinking Symbolism, On
    Anthropological Knowledge, and Explaining Culture. He is also the
    co-author, (with Deirdre Wilson) of Relevance: Communication and

    Sperber holds a research professorship at the French Centre National
    de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, and has held visiting
    positions at Cambridge University, the British Academy, the London
    School of Economics, the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, the
    Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Princeton University, the
    University of Michigan, the University of Bologna, and the University
    of Hong-Kong.

    [13]DAN SPERBER's Edge Bio Page


    [DAN SPERBER:] What I want to know is how, in an evolutionary
    perspective, social cultural phenomena relate to psychological mental

    The social and the psychological sciences,when they emerged as
    properly scholarly disciplines with their own departments in the
    nineteenth century took quite different approaches, adopted different
    methodologies, asked different questions. Psychologists lost sight of
    the fact that what's happening in human minds is always informed by
    the culture in which individuals grow. Social scientists lost sight of
    the fact that the transmission, the maintenance, and the
    transformation of culture takes place not uniquely but in part in
    these individual psychological processes. This means that if what
    you're studying is culture, the part played by the psychological
    moments, or episodes, in the transmission of culture should be seen as
    crucial. I find it unrealistic to think of culture as something
    hovering somehow above individuals -- culture goes through them, and
    through their minds and their bodies and that is, in good part, where
    culture is being made.

    I've been arguing for a very long time now that one should think of
    the evolved psychological makeup of human beings both as a source of
    constraints on the way culture can develop, evolve, and also, of
    course, as what makes culture possible in the first place. I've been
    arguing against the now discredited "blank slate" view of the human
    mind--now splendidly laid to rest by Steve Pinker--but it wasn't
    discredited when I was a student, in fact the "blank slate" view was
    what we were taught and what most people went on teaching. Against
    this, I was arguing that there were specific dispositions, capacities,
    competencies, in the human mind that gave rise to culture, contributed
    to shaping it, and also constrained the way it can evolve -- so that
    led me to work both in anthropology--and more generally in the social
    sciences--,which was my original domain, and,more and more, in what
    was to become cognitive sciences.

    In those years, the late 60s, psychology was in the early stags of the
    "cognitive revolution." It was a domain that really transformed itself
    in a radical manner. This was, and still is, a very exciting
    intellectual period in which to live, with, alas, nothing comparable
    happening in social sciences, (where little that is truly exciting has
    happened during this period in my opinion). I wanted the social
    sciences to take advantage of this revolution in the study of
    cognition and I've tried to suggest how this could be done.

    How do the microprocesses of cultural transmission affect the macro
    structure of culture, its content, its evolution? The microprocesses,
    the small-scale local processes I am talking about are, on the one
    hand, psychological processes that happen inside people's brains, and
    on the other hand, changes that people bring about in their common
    environment--for instance the noise they make when they talk or the
    paths they unconsciously maintain when they walk--and through which
    they interact.

    Just as the human mind is not a blank slate on which culture would
    somehow imprint its content, the communication process is not a xerox
    machine copying contents from one mind to another. This is where I
    part company not just from your standard semiologists or social
    scientists who take communication to be a coding-decoding system, a
    transmission system, biased only by social interests, by power, by
    intentional or unconscious distortions, but that otherwise could
    deliver a kind of smooth flow of undistorted information. I also part
    company from Richard Dawkins who sees cultural transmission as based
    on a process of replication, and who assume that imitation and
    communication provide a robust replication system.

    A good part of my work has been to study, in large part with British
    linguist Deirdre Wilson, the mechanisms of human communication and
    show that they're much more complex and interesting than is generally
    assumed, and much less preservative and replicative and more
    constructive than one might think: understanding involves a lot of
    construction, and not just reconstruction, and very little by way of
    simple replication.

    When you are told something, the simple view of what happens would be:
    'ah! These are words, they have meaning,' and so you decode the
    meaning of the word and you thereby understand what the speaker meant.
    A more realistic and, as I said, also a more interesting idea is that
    the words don't encode the speaker meaning, they just give you
    evidence of the speaker's meaning. When we speak we want our audience
    to understand something that's in our mind. And we have no way to
    fully encode it, and trying at least to encode as much as possible
    would be absurdly cumbersome. Linguistic utterances, however rich and
    complex they may be, cannot fully encode our thoughts. But they can
    give strong richly structured piece of evidence of what our thoughts

    From the point of view of the audience, a speaker is providing rich
    pieces of evidence, which we interpret in a context of shared
    background knowledge, drawing on the common cultural, on the local
    situation, on the ongoing conversation, and so on. You construct a
    complex representation helped by all these different factors. You to
    end up with something which will have been strongly guided, sometimes
    guided in an exquisitely detailed manner, by the communication, by the
    words used by the speaker, but which end up being a thought of your
    own, relevant to you, a recognition, to begin with, of what the
    speaker meant, from which you extract what is relevant to you.

    We're not that interested when we try to comprehend what others say,
    in getting in our minds a copy of what they had in mind, we're
    interested in getting that which is of use and of relevance to us, and
    we see what others are trying to tell us as a source of insight and
    information from which we can indeed construct a thought of our own.
    The same is true of imitation; rarely are you concerned when you
    imitate other people's behavior in copying them exactly. What you want
    when you see others doing something that you think is worth doing, for
    instance, cook a soufflé, it's not to copy the exact gestures and the
    exact souffle that you saw, with its qualities, and also maybe its
    defects, your goal is to cook a good soufflé, your good soufflé. The
    goal of these partly preservative processes of communication and
    imitation is not to copy per se, but to take advantage of information
    provided by others in order to build thoughts of our own, knowledge of
    our own, objects of our own, behaviors of our own, for which we take
    part of the responsibility. The process is constructive in that sense.

    Communication is a very broad notion --one should ask whether it makes
    sense to look for a general theory of communication, given that the
    notion covers such a variety of processes -- processes of
    communication among machines; biologists talk about communication
    among cells; by "animal communication" biologists mean also
    unitentional deception as when the viceroy butterfly has wings
    mimicking the pattern found on the poisonous monarch butterfly, so as
    not to be eaten by predator birds, and so on.

    All these form of communication and many others are communication in a
    very broad sense where some information--in some broad sense of
    information too--is provided by one device or organism, and is used by
    another. There are some commonalities linked to this general
    definition of communication, and indeed, Shannon and Weaver for
    instance were interested in such a very basic notion. But if we think
    of communication in biological terms, it is not clear that we have the
    subject matter of a useful general theory. Think of locomotion. How
    much can you get from a general theory of locomotion, even sticking to
    the biological domain and leaving aside artifacts, airplanes, cars,
    bicycles. I doubt that there is much to get from a general theory of
    locomotion that would cover fish swimming, birds flying, snakes
    crawling, us walking, and so on.

    If you're studying human locomotion, then you look at the specific
    organs, the way, for instance, we do it, why we do it, what
    evolutionary pressure have selected our particular way of doing it.
    Even more--much more--than human bipedal upright walking, human
    communication is very special, it's quite unlike the communication you
    find in other animals. Not just because of language, which indeed has
    no real equivalent among other species, but also because of another
    reason which is also quite remarkable but that has not been stressed,
    and on which Deirdre Wilson and I have been doing a lot of work,
    namely that if you look at human languages as codes -- which in a
    sense they undoubtedly are -- they are very defective codes! When say,
    vervet monkeys communicate among themselves, one vervet monkey might
    spot a leopard and emit an alarm cry that indicates to the other
    monkeys in his group that there's a leopard around. The other vervet
    monkeys are informed by this alarm cry of the presence of a leopard,
    but they're not particularly informed of the mental state of the
    communicator, and they don't give a damn about it. The signal puts
    them in a cognitive state of knowledge about the presence of a
    leopard, similar to that of the communicating monkey -- here you
    really have a smooth coding-decoding system.

    In the case of humans, when we speak we're not interested per se in
    the meaning of the words, we register what the word means as a way to
    find out what the speaker means. Speaker's meaning is what's involved.
    Speaker's meaning is a mental state of the speaker, an intention he or
    she has to share with us some content. Human communication is based on
    the ability we have to attribute mental state to others, to want to
    change the mental states of others, and to accept that others change

    When I communicate with you I am trying to change your mind. I am
    trying to act on your mental state. I'm not just putting out a kind of
    signal for you to decode. And I do that by providing you with evidence
    of a mental state in which I want to put you in and evidence of my
    intention to do so. The role of what is often known in cognitive
    science as "theory of mind," that is the uniquely human ability to
    attribute complex mental states to others, is as much a basis of human
    communication as is language itself.

    I am full of admiration for the mathematical theory of information and
    communication, the work of Shannon, Weaver, and others, and it does
    give a kind of very general conceptual framework which we might take
    advantage of. But if you apply it directly to human communication,
    what you get is a mistaken picture, because the general model of
    communication you find is a coding-decoding model of communication, as
    opposed to this more constructive and inferential form of
    communication which involves infering the mental stateof others, and
    that's really characteristic of humans.

    I have been developing my own approach to culture under the general
    heading of "epidemiology of representations". The first thing to do,
    of course, is to take away the negative connotation of epidemiology --
    it's not the epidemiology of diseases -- epidemiology is the study of
    the distribution of certain items or conditions in the population. One
    can study the distribution of particular pathological conditions, but
    you can also study the distribution of good habits, or thoughts, or
    representations, artifacts, or forms of knowledge.

    I'm not assuming that culture is good -- I don't want to have a
    cultural epidemiology to be on the side of the angels, as opposed to
    medical anthropology on the side of the demons. What's I like about
    epidemiology is that it's the one social science that is truly
    naturalistic in studying what happens in populations, typically in
    human populations, and it explains the macro phenomena at the level of
    population such as epidemics, by the aggregation of the micro
    processes both inside individuals and in their interaction. I believe
    that the cultural and the social in general should be approached in
    the same manner.

    Of course I'm not the only one to do that, a number of people, mostly
    coming from biology, like Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, Marcus W. Feldman, E.O
    Wilson and Xharles Lumsden, Richard Dawkins, Bill Durham, Robert Boyd,
    and Peter Richerson, have developed different conceptions which in
    this broad sense are epidemiological, or, another way to put it: they
    are forms of "population-thinking" applied to culture. You take what
    happens at the population level to results from the microprocesses
    affecting individuals in the population. Dawkins, who is particularly
    clear and simple in a good way in his approach, offers a contrast to
    my approach.

    For Dawkins, you can take the Darwinian model of selection and apply
    it almost as is to culture. Why? Because the basic idea is that, just
    as genes are replicators, bits of culture that Dawkins called "memes"
    are replicators too.

    If you take the case of population genetics, the causal mechanisms
    involved split into two subsets. You have the genes, which are
    extremely reliable mechanisms of replication. On the other hand, you
    have a great variety of environmental factors -- including organisms
    which are both expression of genes and part of their environment --,
    environmental factors that affect the relative reproductive success of
    the genes. You have then on one side this extremely robust replication
    mechanism, and on the other side a huge variety of other factors that
    make these competing replication devices more or less successful.

    Translate this into the cultural domain, and you'll view memes, bits
    of culture, as again very strong replication devices, and all the
    other factors, historical, ecological, and so on, as contributing to
    the relative success of the memes.

    What I'm denying, and I've mentioned this before, is that there is a
    basis for a strong replication mechanism either in cognition or in
    communication. It's much weaker than that. As I said, preservative
    processes are always partly constructive processes. When they don't
    replicate, this does not mean that they make an error of copying.
    Their goal is not to copy. There are transformation in the process of
    transmission all the time, and also in the process of remembering and
    retrieving past, stored information, and these transformations are
    part of the efficient working of these mechanisms.

    In the case of cultural evolution, this yields a kind of paradox. On
    the one hand, of course, we have macro cultural stability -- we do see
    the same dish being cooked, the same ideologies being adopted, the
    same words being used, the same song being sung. Without some
    relatively high degree of cultural stability--which was even
    exaggerated in classical anthropology--, the very notion of culture
    wouldn't make sense.

    How then do we reconcile this relative macro stability at the cultural
    level, with a lack of fidelity at the micro level? You might think: if
    it's stable at the macro level, what else could provide you this macro
    stability apart from the faithful copying at the micro level? It's the
    only possible explanation that most people think of. But that's not
    the only one, and it's not even a plausible one.

    Dawkins himself has pointed out that each act of of cultural
    transmission may involve some mistakes in copying, some mutation. But
    if that is the case, then the Darwinian selection model isunlikely to
    apply, at least in its basic form. The problem is reconciling this
    macro stability with the micro lack of sufficient fidelity. The
    answer, I believe, is linked precisely to the fact that in human,
    transmission is achieved not just by replication, but also by

    If it were just replication, copying, and there were lots of errors of
    copy all the time, then nothing would stabilize and it's unlikely that
    the selective pressures would be strong enough to produce a real
    selection comparable to the one you see in biology. On the other hand,
    if you have constructive processes, they can compensate the limits of
    the copying processes.

    What happens is this. Although indeed when things get transmitted they
    tend to vary with each episode of transmission, these variations tend
    to gravitate around what I call "cultural attractors", which are, if
    you look at the dynamics of cultural transmission, points or regions
    in the space of possibilities, towards which transformations tend to
    go. The stability of cultural phenomena is not provided by a robust
    mechanism of replication. It's given in part, yes, by a mechanism of
    preservation which is not very robust, not very faithful, (and it's
    not its goal to be so). And it's given in part by a strong tendency
    for the construction -- in every mind at every moment-- of new ideas,
    new uses of words, new artifacts, new behaviors, to go not in a random
    direction, but towards attractors. And, by the way, these cultural
    attractors themselves have a history.

    Dawkins, of course, is only one of the people who have proposed new
    ways of modeling cultural evolution. He's important because he brings
    it down to the simplest possible version -- there's a great merit in
    simplicity. He sees cultural evolution at the same time as being
    analogous to biological evolution, and as being an evolution almost
    independent from biological evolution: it has just been made possible
    by the biological evolution of homo sapiens, which has given us the
    mind we have, and which, so the story goes, makes us capable indeed of
    endlessly copying contents. We are supposed to be imitation machines,
    "meme machines" to use Susan Blakemore's phrase, and this explains

    Dawkins, in a strange way, presents something very similar to the
    blank slate view of the mind. The blank slate view, as I was taught it
    in anthropology, says the human mind is capable of learning anything
    -- whatever content would be provided by culture can be written on the
    blank slate. Well, the general imitating machine does more or less the
    same thing. It's capable of imitating just whatever type of content it
    is presented with, and the relative success of some contents against
    others, has to do with the selective forces. The idea that the human
    mind is such a kind of universal imitation machine is hardly better
    psychology, in my view, than the blank slate story.

    Others, E.O Wilson and Charles Lumsden, Rob Boyd and Pete Richerson,
    have asked to what extent the evolved dispositions that both constrain
    and make possible culture are, in return, affected by cultural
    evolution itself so as to yield a kind of gene-culture coevolution.
    Instead of having two evolutionary scenarios running in parallel, one
    biological evolution, the other cultural evolution, you get some
    degree of interaction, possibly a strong interaction, between gene and
    culture. The general idea has got to be correct. The details, in my
    opinion, are still very poorly understood.

    For a variety of reasons, I believe that memes are not the right story
    about cultural evolution. This is because in the cultural case,
    replication is not very successful in explaining cultural stability. I
    also believe that among the factors we need to take into account to
    explain cultural attraction of which I was talking before, are evolved
    aspect of the human psychology. The one type of scholarship and
    research that has to be brought into the picture, in my view, is
    evolutionary psychology, as defended in particular in the work of Leda
    Cosmides, John Tooby, Steve Pinker and taken up in more critical ways
    by a growing number of developmental psychologists and of
    philosophers. To understand culture, we have to understand the
    complexity of the psychological makeup of human beings. We have to go
    to really deep psychology, understood both in a richly cognitive
    manner and with a proper evolutionary perspective, to put start
    explaining cultural evolution. We need a representation of a human
    mind that's complex in an appropriate manner, true to the empirical
    data, and rich enough indeed to explain the regularities the,
    stability, and the variability of culture.

    This is them a different story, but it's still a Darwinian story. It's
    a Darwinian story in the sense that it's an application of population
    thinking, which tries to explains the macro phenomena in terms of a
    micro processes and properties, and which doesn't assume that there
    are types or essences of macro cultural and social things. Macro
    regularities are always the outcome of distribution of micro features,
    evolving all the time.

    In this Darwinian story however, instead of causal processes in
    culture as split between robust replication devices and a variety of
    selection factor, we have a much more promiscuous form of causality.
    Cultural causality is promiscuous. Constructive processes always
    interfere with preservation processes. So we need to build models
    different from standard Darwinian models of selection, in order to
    arrive at the right way to draw on Darwinian inspiration with regard
    to culture, that is, we must generalize Darwin to the cultural case,
    rather than adjust it in a way which twists the data well beyond what
    is empirically plausible.


    The idea of God isn't a supernatural idea. If the idea of God were
    supernatural, then religion would be true. The idea of God, the idea,
    the representation of something supernatural is not itself
    supernatural. If it were, then we would be out of business. Precisely
    what we're trying to explain is, to quote the title of a book by
    Pascal Boyer, the "naturalness of religious ideas," explain, in other
    terms, how these ideas of the supernatural can occur in the natural
    beings we are, in human brains and minds and culture, and have the
    kind of success that they have, in spite of the fact that you can't
    explain them in the way that you explain so many human ideas, such as
    ideas that are acquired through experience of the things they are

    We humans have ideas about plants and animals because we experience
    plants and animals in a special way with the brain we have. We don't
    experience God, or goblins or witches, because there are no such
    things. Nevertheless, we have rich complex ideas about them, a
    richness in many ways comparable to the ideas we have about plants,
    animals and the natural things around them.

    How is that possible? The issue is what makes these kind of ideas
    psychologically, cognitively attractive -- "catching", such that they
    stay with you in your head and you may want to communicate them and to
    guide your behavior on their basis. And also: which of them, among all
    the unrealistic unsupported ideas that are possible in infinite
    variety, are going to be so "catching" as to achieve cultural success,
    in the manner of the many religious ideas that has been around for

    It's not like any blatantly false idea will somehow make it to a
    cultural success -- far from it. Most of them don't stand a chance.
    What's special about ideas of the supernatural? I argued long ago that
    it had to do with the fact that they are rooted in our cognitive
    dispositions, in the way we approach the natural world. Instead of
    departing from our commonsense ideas so to speak at random, they're
    like direct provocation -- they have always an aspect of going
    directly against what should be the most intuitively obvious.

    So for instance it's part of our common sense knowledge of of living
    forms, that an animal can't be both a dog and a cat, but the
    supernatural is full of creatures like dragons that typically belong
    to several species simultaneously. It's part of our common sense
    knowledge of the physical world that an entity cannot be in two places
    simultaneously, but ubiquity is a distinctive trait of supernatural
    beings. It's kind of again commonsense, in our commonsense psychology
    which we deploy in everyday interaction with one another, that one's
    visual perceptions are limited to what's present in front of one's
    eyes. Supernatural beings typically can see the past, the future, and
    things on the other side of earth. So supernatural beings are kind of
    provocations to commonsense. They are really deeply counterintuitive.
    That's an idea I suggested a long time ago and that Pascal Boyer has
    developed and enriched in a remarkable fashion, and which I think is
    one of the cognitive ingredients that helps explain the success of
    religious ideas. Of course, it's only one little fragment of a kind of
    complex picture.


    I started as an anthropologist. Precisely because they were more
    cognitive, more naturalist, more linked also to evolution than most,
    for a long time, my ideas were not very well received among
    anthropologists. They've been discussed a lot, but I found myself
    spending too much time with my fellow anthropologists arguing the
    basics of the field rather than moving forward in research. I got
    involved in linguistics, experimental psychology, philosophy of
    science, evolutionary biology, and lots of fascinating topics--and
    continuing also the conversation with anthropologists. Anthropology is
    a discipline that has been in crisis all my life.

    When I started the crisis was linked to the end of the colonization.
    Anthropology had developed during the period of colonization, as a
    kind of ancillary science for colonial enterprise. At the same time so
    many anthropologists were actually active in anti-colonialist
    movement, and that was also one of the reasons I came to anthropology.
    But, the decolonisation, anthropology lost this kind of historical and
    sociological context. Anthropologists in the 60s, 70s, were asking
    about their political role, about whether or not we were on the right

    Anthropologists started studying themselves and trying to reflect on
    their own situation. It was a kind of reflective anthropology, which
    had a number of interesting aspects. I certainly don't think it was
    useless although it became a bit obsessive. Parallel to these
    developments, were the post-structuralist and then post-modernist
    movements in the humanities and the social sciences, the development
    of "cultural studies," and many anthropologists felt at ease in these

    This produced a new kind of discourse, taking the study of other
    cultures as much as a pretext as a subject matter to be investigated
    in a standard scholarly manner. Again, some of the products of this
    appraoch are of genuine interest, but on the whole more harm has been
    done than good. While this was happening, others, in part in reaction
    against this turn toward the literary in anthropology, moved on the
    contrary toward a more naturalistic anthropology. They became
    interested in social biology, in biological anthropology.

    What you find now in anthropology departments is that people can't
    talk to each other. Some universities have now had two anthropology
    departments. So anthropology is stilll in crisis, even if it is not
    the same crisis. You can look at such a crisis from an institutional
    or from an intellectual point of view.

    Universities as we know them emerged in the nineteenth century and
    unerwent major changes, in particular after World War II. It does not
    make sense to project this short past into an indefinite future. In
    fact, universities are evolving, transforming themselves beyond
    recognition. The biggest changes are will be due to new communication
    technology. There is also now a big and blatant gap between the
    structure of departments in universities, which have to do with
    institution of transmission of knowledge, and which seem to define
    stable domains such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, and the
    real ongoing research which is structured in new ways -- in the form
    of creative, or dynamic, research programs, that may fall within a
    traditional discipline, or, more often, across several traditional
    disciplines. Depending on the productivity of such dynamic programs,
    they are can go on for ten years, 20 years, 30 years, or more.

    It is these dynamic research programs that interest me; I've been
    involved in several, and that's what I find to be intellectually
    exciting. When we say anthropology is in crisis we're talking about
    anthropology as defined by academic institutions. And it doesn't
    matter. It deserves to be in crisis; it deserves to explode, let it do


   10. http://www.edge.org/video/dsl/sperber.html
   11. http://www.edge.org/video/56k/sperber.html
   12. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/brockman.html
   13. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/sperber.html
   14. http://www.edge.org/documents/summerbooks2005/books.html
   15. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/brockman.html
   16. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/weinberger.html
   17. mailto:editor at edge.org
   18. http://www.edge.org/about_edge.html
   19. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/sperber05/sperber05_index.html#top

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