Scott Atran. Psychology, Anthropology, and a Science of Human Beings



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The following reflection on the problems of psychology, anthropology, and a science of human beings has been stimulated by recent responses to a couple of recent articles in Nature (Looking for the Roots of Terrorism  and Psychologists Seek Roots of Terror), by my very able co-worker (Lydia Wilson) reacting to problems of doing fieldwork in Lebanon that produces something to “show” for the scientific community, and by exchanges with my colleagues at ARTIS research, Baruch Fischhoff and Doug Medin.

The problem with cognitive, social and developmental psychology, and related neuropsychological approaches to cultural issues are not just methodological—although these are pretty massive, like the fact that almost all studies by academic psychologists are of students at the same academic institutions or of children who live within a few miles. The philosophical problem is the belief that “culture” is an independent variable, a presumed cause of other things—pushing someone is a cause of that person moving—in situations where the actual material nature of causality is completely opaque, sloughed off to some nebulous notion of “influence” inferred by statistical regularities.


The search for social universals in psychology is also vitiated by essentialism, the belief that the phenomenon in question has a fixed set of inherent, inalienable traits that make it what it is, much as an element in the periodic table may be necessarily and sufficiently described (at least at some underlying level) by its configuration of protons and electrons. For example, kinship and religion are universal aspects of human societies, or near enough, and there seem to be underlying common traits, like biological maternity and belief in phenomena opaque to logical or empirical confirmation or refutation; however, the further content and boundaries of these phenomena are open and fuzzy. Even biological maternity and belief in the supernatural are not always necessary, as in adoption and certain forms of Buddhism. Human grammars, color perception and folkbiological classification systems may well have innately determined and universally distinguishable traits instantiated in the mind/brains of most individuals, but their sufficient conditions and full phenotypic social expressions defy clear formulation. Evolutionary theory in biology has fruitfully explored “universals” while making efforts to avoid such simplistic and wrongheaded assumptions, but the sophistication and nuance of biological theorizing is rarely part of reflection in psychology (including evolutionary psychology). In evolutionary theory, individual variation is a prime mover, whereas in psychology, individual variation—a prime mover—would be regarded or disregarded as “deviants” or “outliers” (and indeed, the standard statistics used in psychology only contribute to that).

Psychology often strives for simple understandings of complex phenomena, as if Occam’s razor were the only way of paring down reality to manageable proportions. Thus, the distinction between “individualistic” versus “collectivist” societies, which is a mainstay of social psychology, is laughable to most anthropologists (who almost rightly might say that this is really rooted in ad hoc distinction between Western academics versus the rest of the world). Similarly, recent proposals to alleviate poverty by having parents talk more to children because there is supposedly a 30 million word gap between poor and middle class families belies a rather simple-minded, single-cause fix-it approach to multifaceted problems. By contrast, engineers also deal with multifaceted phenomena, from sending people to the moon to supercomputers that think about chess better than people. Although much less complex than the whole of “East Asian” society or poverty, these problems elicit the efforts of various specialty teams, each aware of its own limits and the need for a truly interdisciplinary approach upon which real lives and lots of money depend (to build a bridge, you have to know about climate, metals, traffic patterns and psychology, and much, much more). Of course there are psychologists who fall outside the disciplinary stereotype that I’ve presented here. But ask yourselves: “In the last century or so of academic psychology, what fundamental insights into human mentation and social formation have been made beyond what, say, the Greek philosophers offered?” if you can count them on one hand I’d be surprised (my own candidates: generative grammar, biases that constrain rationality, emergent properties of networks – the last having minor input from psychology)

As for anthropology, ever since the Vietnam War, the two no-no’s have been research on universals and collusion with power, these being conflated by the belief that hidden in the West’s hegemonic designs on the world is a “logocentric” attempt to reduce the rest of the world to manipulatable proportions. There is some truth in all of this. For example, some of the best work in classical British social anthropology came from the British Empire’s attempt to regularize kinship among indigenous peoples in order to more efficiently administer them, thus locking them into a somewhat Procrustean system that did capture important elements of social, psychological and ecological reality, but one also vitiated by unacknowledged colonial interests and largely oblivious to the historical fluidity and capacity for change present before the system was systematized.

Now, however, much of cultural anthropology is so preoccupied with irreducible “diversity” (on down to glorification of some obscure person on a subway ruminating on her “cosita”—seriously) that the science of human beings is being left almost wholly to psychology, which is trying to reinvent the wheel of a systematic classification and causal account of human cultures and their products that anthropology pretty thoroughly examined, modified and ultimately rejected over the entire course of the 20th century. But because much of cultural anthropology, especially in the USA, has left almost nothing communicable with the rest of science, then by default, psychology fills the gap when it comes to human beings (with some input also from history, sociology and political science, which are also being sundered by lumpers versus splitters). And so Oxford University Press, which was the first to regularly publish anthropology as science, has stopped doing so. To be sure, there are still some cultural anthropologists who seek scientific insight, but they are vanishing breed reduced to numbers that may soon preclude having a section to represent them within the American Anthropological Association.

Of course, one of the main reasons for anthropology in the first place was to record and catalogue the cultural groups that the expanding Western powers were confronting and conquering across the word, before these groups died out. And now that the cataloguing is basically over—because those groups are extinct or have been assimilated beyond readily describable distinction into the globalized world—perhaps the very reason for anthropology, and its existence as a separate science, is gone. That could be fine, with anthropology giving way to a more causally sophisticated and temporally inclusive science of humans in much the way natural history has been absorbed into, and dissolved by, biology; only, the current psychology of humans is not, as I intimated above, either causally sophisticated or temporally inclusive. In fact, to understand the causal process that produce culturally identifiable behaviors, both individual variation and long time horizons would be necessary subjects of sustained study, and we would find that the very notion of “culture,” like that of “species,” while commonsensical and useful as a starting point of inquiry, is ultimately a ladder that science has to throw away.

And as for the critique of power, if it means, as it has for some, that all moral systems are relative but that our own is most noxious because it is the most greedy and invasive, then human rights and democracy can have no privileged status over intolerance and political and social slavery. For open democracy and human rights are a product of Western history, with all its warts and violence, and for human rights and open democracy to thrive, or even survive (by no means a sure thing), the powers that be must be engaged and hopefully transformed from within further in the direction of an open society with freedom of expression and equality before the law. Not to engage power is to leave it to its own self-perpetuating devices and so help to perpetuate its abuses (while leaving the most efficient and brutal politics of others practically alone and free to reign).

So where does this leave our sort of inquiry into the political fires spreading across the globe’s middle latitudes? In a muddled way, meant to balance the desire for systematic insight into momentous movements and events that are violently engaging and transforming most everybody’s world in fundamental ways, with some attempt at rigor and replicability. But try asking a civilian or fighter in a war zone to fill out a questionnaire about preferable tradeoffs using Likert scales. It’s usually only if you can all laugh together about it is there a chance in Hell it’ll get done. And then what do the answers actually mean (“I would/wouldn’t adopt/abandon Sharia/Democracy for X amount of money/all the money in the world). And how reliable or even informative is this all when someone actually puts a gun to your head to force a real choice? It’s not like you can readily monitor outcomes or tweak your questionnaire to give to next week’s class. I would love to be able to focus on actually figuring out what a causal science of human beings might actually look like, linking individual cognitions, social networks, local institutions and ecologies in causal, materially identifiable chains (without pseudo-causal notions like “influence” or “infrastructure” or “subsumption” and the like) to at least the commonsense regularities that make sense to politicians and peoples, in order to make the world a less violent place for those I care for. I would also much prefer to do fieldwork in the Caribbean than the Middle East. But now I’m off to Iraq.

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Chris Kavanagh

I pretty much agree with all of the criticisms made in the article above but at the same time I feel like some of them are ultimately contradictory. We don’t want psychologists to essentialise cognitive universals and over-simplify the influence of ‘culture’ yet we also don’t want anthropologists to focus solely on cultural specificities and ignore the value of a comparative agenda. We want our anthropologists/psychologists to produce ‘practical’ work and work in collaborative teams, like engineers building a bridge or NASA(!), but we also want them to be like careful evolutionary biologists, many of whom spend countless years working on very specific topics that have little direct ‘practical’ output besides refining our knowledge about very specific evolutionary processes.

I still agree that the problems identified are all of real concern and salient, but I also believe that the efforts of researchers like Scott or Peter or Joe Henrich, which often cross interdisciplinary boundaries and emphasis the importance of working in the ‘real world’ (even when it is messy and difficult), are the solution and are receiving increasing attention/support. However, I may be biased about how widespread this perspective is as I am surrounded and work with people who fully recognise and agree with the limitations entailed with both ‘traditional’ anthropology and psychology research.

The post above also made me think about some remarks I came across recently from Festinger in the 80s concerning how research (on Cognitive Dissonance) could progress. They still seem remarkably relevant to me and especially so given the arguments presented above:

“One of the things about laboratory experiments is that you can only get out the stuff you put in and any good experimenter who is concerned in testing a hypothesis is going to try and eliminate from the laboratory experiment all the unwanted stuff that generally floats around, and dissonance reducing processes are not the only things that affect man, using man in the generic sense. I think we need to find out about how dissonance processes and dissonance reducing processes interact in the presence of other things that are powerful influences on human behavior and human cognition, and the only way to do that is to do studies in the ‘real world’. They’re messy and difficult. You don’t expect the precision out of those studies that you can get in the laboratory. But out of them will emerge more ideas which we can then bring into the laboratory to clarify and help to broaden and enrich the work.”

Peter Turchin

Scott, I share much of your frustration with how little progress we have been making with the science of human beings. There are so many barriers. I remember when I was doing research on non-human mammals (the American elk) and how many hoops I had to jump through to propitiate the animal welfare committee. Working with humans is much worse.

But I am more optimistic about the prospects for a science of large human groupings. First, fortunately there are no ethics committees to satisfy when working with human collectives (at least so far). So we have a freer hand to pursue research questions. Second, I think that human collectives are generally more predictable than individual human beings. Individuals have a freedom of will – which is limited by the society and the environment, but in the final analysis is irreducible to such external factors. Human groups, on the other hand, filter out free will in many ways – through consensus building, conformism, etc. So a science of the dynamics of human organizations and of whole societies should be possible. I call it Cliodynamics. Cultural Evolution is a very important part when dealing with longer time scales. We’ve already had some notable successes, and there is a lot more to be done. But I think the prospects are good.

Scott Atran

I think Cliodynamics is a promising direction – informed by history evolutionary theory and population dynamics. But I also believe cognitive anthropology and psychology have important roles determining “attractor spaces” towards which cultural productions will tend to go and cluster, like religious formations.

david ronfeldt

This makes the third time in about as many weeks that I’ve read a call to do away with the concept of “culture”. The first time was at the Edge blog in response to their annual question, this year’s being “what scientific idea is ready for retirement?” Three different people, mostly anthropologists as i recall, said it was “culture”. The second time was in a follow-up discussion that may still be continuing at the ICCI blog. And now here. Quite a concurrence.

What puzzles me is that this is the third (or fourth) concept i’ve seen anthropologists propose discarding over the decades. The others are “tribes” and “evolution” (as relates to “progress”) — concepts i like a lot.

Which has led me to wonder why anthropology and anthropologists have turned against what were originally central concepts more than has any other social-science discipline. Sure, political scientists have fielded keen criticisms of “power” and economists of “capital” and sociologists of i-can’t-remember-what — but never to a terminal degree. Or am i missing something?

Chris Kavanagh

I’m not sure the criticisms have been terminal to the concepts you identify, at least for cognitively inclined anthropologists. It may be the case in mainstream social and cultural anthropology but that is because the discipline has travelled quite far down the postmodern rabbit hole, where deconstructing/dismissing concepts remains a primary occupation/end in itself.

Peter Turchin

I don’t see Scott advocating that we do away with the concept of culture, rather we need to do away with pseudo-explanations such as, “oh, it’s culture.” In the new field of Cultural Evolution culture is very clearly defined and provide the basis for both building theories and testing them with data.

syndax vuzz

Reblogged this on syndax vuzz.


But ask yourselves: “In the last century or so of academic psychology, what fundamental insights into human mentation and social formation have been made beyond what, say, the Greek philosophers offered?”

The most important one is surely the fact that all human behaviors are moderately to strongly heritable, while family environments are largely irrelevant as causes of individual differences within a given society. You completely ignore behavioral genetics throughout your piece, even though it is the one approach to explaining human behavior that allows for strong causal inference and that is fully consonant with evolutionary theory.

In behavioral genetics and differential psychology (which you also ignore), human variation is seen as something to be explained, not a nuisance to be ignored in the search for universals. Importantly, behavioral geneticists and differential psychologists almost never use students as study subjects because it is axiomatic in these fields that representative population samples are needed for reliable inferences. Moreover, behavioral genetic methods can be profitably used to test hypotheses arising from evolutionary psychology.

Lee Doran

I find this whole discussion totally weird. I literally have no idea what you people are going on about … this from a self-taught (or not) originally a biologist now doing what he (probably arrogantly self-deluded) believes is a kind of science of human beings… And to hear you folks who I respect so much and have taught me so much falling into the same old us vs them project that has buggered humanity since forever is just totally absurd to me.

Does anybody care one iota whether discipline xyz has now added aabbcc and is about to subtract qqrrrss because those foks in stuvw have decided their new discipline needs a new name? …I mean, puhlleezz! … come on guys (sic)!

Terrorism is rooted in the violence that is the propensity (‘aggression’) in all human males…. it’s what males do: they fight with one another for priority access to ♀♀ (first) then land, riches food, other resources (later). Their violence takes on the flavour of the time and place and these days for a whole bunch of reasons are probably more historical than anything else…the guys on the front lines call themselves terrorists.

These fighting guys, being human, (all guys) can invent most any cause they like (and do!) to
justify or rationalize their fighting ways. It can be religion it can be terror it can be true unfairness, it can be defense of the family, it can be defense of the sympathy (core) group, it can be made up BS… it does not matter..

They all get the same T + endorphins surge (and every member of the team gets it — even if he’s only watching the game on TV from half way around the world)… so they keep on doing it … I mean what’s more pleasurable on human Earth?!

Then over centuries they build institutions in their own image and call them things like economies and governments and universities and health care systems… you get the picture … except every one of those in the modern world is based on the same male model … so the male mind builds male institutions to fight at various levels with new male rules and call it ‘humanity’….hahahaha laugh along with me … while the ♀♀ are propagating the species, looking after the home fires, keeping the species (literally) alive

Now: the “answer” to all this maleness writ large is just as obvious — and one of the reasons this whole terrorists discussion is so laughable, in one sense… the way humanity brings itself back into balance with itself is to allow the feminine half of its nature to emerge… this is happening very reluctantly even in the most ‘progressive’ places but where it happens or starts to the results are magical…’we’ become more peaceful, we care about others, we eschew the maleness that gives us oligarchical control of economies on one scale (and wives in our own lives)…

Now of course starting in the 1960’s the female mind got liberated by technology from the home fire drudgery (they called it life) that dogged that sex/gender since forever (literally)… now gradually, gradually her mind is emerging and revealing itself to the rest of us … and the world she sees and is building in her own image looks totally different… it cares, it nurtures, it is honest, it is ethical, it is respectful…. as we get glimpses of what it can and would do for all of humanity given half a chance it is literally breathtaking…

AND IT — her world — DOES NOT DO PHYSICAL VIOLENCE… just think about that… and repeat after me … her world does not do physical violence…

What does that portend for his world where his physical violence is translated all the time every day and every way into some subsumed form of violence that he (and ‘civilization’) has learned to live with (pardon the pun)…

Right at this moment: what if his world would relax just a bit and allow hers to teach us all a thing or two about what human is…if only he would stop fighting — at every level of his life from personal through small group to large group forever,he fights … she doesn’t… too bad they can;t learn to live together in groups big and small (literally) the way they (sometimes) learn to live together in couples ….

But only if aabbcc will get out of the way and stop adding qqrrsstt and subtracting tuvwxy… etc. Off to the field, indeed … onto the field that is … life lived whole and full and balanced… and not in the male gangs that have defined a certain humanity to certain MANities forever

best to all,


Scott Atran

Well, if you include Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendelian genetics as cognitive and social psychology or cultural anthropology — and why not, then, also neurochemistry or information theory, which I also ignore here — you have a point. But to what extent do these figure as determining the makeup of departments of psychology or anthropology, or the APS or AAA?

And as for eliminating “culture” as a putative natural kind for science, we can still talk about it much the way we talk about “species” in science: not as a natural kinds or class of individuals (or, when making generalizations about “culture” or “species,” as a class of classes) but as somewhat arbitrary segments of historical causal chains. Doing so, changes fundamentally the way we think about these things. Actually, I think the approaches of Rob Boyd, Pete Richerson, Dan Sperber and and a few others are already doing that. But they are on the margins of the mainstreams.

Peter Turchin

That’s right, culture is clearly defined in Richerson, Boyd, et al approach. It’s socially transmitted information. Cultural evolution is the process by which relative frequencies of cultural variants change with time. With this definitions, as I said above, we can do science – building theories and testig them with data. In fact, we not only can, we already do.

Scott Atran

Dear Lee Doran, There is aboog titled, “Takking to the Enemy: Viokent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human” (Penguin, 2010) that, as far as I am aware, makes many of the points about “terrorism” that you think are ignored in the discussion here. But I don’t see how those point relates to the argument over the nature of the disciplines discussed here.

Lee Doran

Thanks so much Scott. Yes, I know the book … your amazing work has done wonders at enlightening us all about what and who we are as a species and as group members and as males (my spin)…I suppose the link is very indirect and of course the morning after, I feel somewhat chastened at having gone on at such length over such an insignificant point, really.

If we go up (or down) a level, I guess what I’m wanting to say is that “you people” (sic) have so many wonderful understandings and insights that all of humanity needs — and in some cases pretty desperately these days — and you ‘waste’ (apologies again) your time quibbling (even thinking!) about what to call each other.

I mean, don’t you see that in a sense that is deteriorating into the “Us vs Them” mindset that brought us all to this place in order to rise above it? As I tried to say (my apologies for going on, once again) nobody cares about this except you and the three other people who get the nuances of what you’re on about (apologies again for the bluntness).

But there are, I dare say millions, probably tens of millions (and perhaps even that is an underestimate) of people in this world who need to take your insights from books such as the one you cite and put them together with your multitude of colleagues’ work — those who have so brilliantly, cogently, dare I say nearing definitively, told us what we are as a species (the science of humanity that I thought you were concerned about — nominally at least — at the top of your piece). And yet with the exception of a couple of people I know of (who tend to either sponsor or live on this blog and its relatives) almost no one is doing it.

And then some of you (or ‘the discipline’ as a whole — don’t ask which one — everyone has one — and only one — don’t you see how this links?) pull the ladder up into the attic and let no one else in because they either don’t have the right qualifications (discipline creds) or because they don’t have the right ‘name’ (the name of their discipline — your concern, again my apologies) in the target piece.

Please don’t misunderstand me… I am not saying that I want to dictate or even express a concern about how you or anyone else spends their time… It’s not about that sort of thing.. it is about working together — outside of the silos that so many seem so keen to build to establish their “us” against the world’s “them”… and much of the time bleating away about how we need more inter-disciplinary work and people who pay attention to the many fields and disciplines that all fit together (almost literally — I know because I have been trying to do it for 40 years — and now it’s actually beginning to happen)….

I have a personal example: there is an upcoming ‘forum’ on complexity (economic mostly apparently) and evolution in Europe somewhere that sounds absolutely fascinating to me… I have been aware of and curious about it for months. I write polite emails to the “info@…” and get no reply. Black hole. A local friend phones up in the local language and gets a bit of info… I follow up with a phone call and by accident I guess get a real live person, and get very polite indirect message that the event is closed or invitation only (decided years (?) in advance who would attend!) but I can write to the director. I put together a multi-page pitch with all the links to my work and publications and explicit creds which in the inter-disciplinary mode are not that bad (I say, because no one or very few others are inter-disciplinary so how can they even judge — even know what they are judging?)… black hole. Then, I Ieave repeated phone messages — no more real people answering the phone these days. Black hole. What is this? My latest messages are simply pleading for info on access to the outcomes of the week-long forum…. will there be a video or blog posts or pod casts or what…? My friend got wind that there might be one public meeting the last day of the forum … even that is not acknowledged or responded to when I query it. I mean, why the secrecy over something so important. Is this another corporate take-over to control some kind of info or sell something specific or …what? It doesn’t ‘feel’ quite like that to me in this case, but it could well be, I suppose… But it could also be (more likely is, my hunch) just inadvertent… no one is thinking about it … everyone is too busy putting the final touches on the wine list for the final banquet… that sort of thing…

Now: once again. This is not about me. I cannot go now in any case. And I will just have to be patient and wait the two or how many ever years it is until the perfectly edited ‘volume’ emerges from the inner sanctum…but don’t you see the link? Why the secrecy? Why the ladder? Why the attic? Why not reach out to those millions who want and need to know this stuff and who are wanting — and could — begin to apply it in good faith to themselves and their friends and neighbors and lives today …

No, instead we behave like “Us vs Them” humans that we thought we understood quite a long time ago– and should have understood (shouldn’t we?) well enough to stop behaving in those ways that we have understood/exposed?

My apologies for going on once again, but you did sort of ask about what was the link…and the link is the much bemoaned but never attempted science of humanity…with apologies once again for the hubris of all this…and thanks to you for even asking…

I can’t wait to hear about your latest work… Many thanks to you and all the people on this and related sites who are almost without exception amongst the few who “get it” and are really trying…

All my very best … and thanks,


Chris Kavanagh


It sounds like you’re over analysing the disorganisation/exclusiveness of one conference as representative of some entrenched ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mindset inherent in academia/the social evolution field? But doesn’t that seem a bit of a stretch? All of the academic conferences I’ve attended to date are quite open, with the sole exception being that they tend to have an early window for applications to present. Maybe my experience is atypical but it seems misguided to overinterpret such a minor thing as a bad experience trying to find out about a conference… you do seem to acknowledge this in your comment, but then continue on regardless.

In your responses to comments here you also similarly seem to misinterpret and/or overinterpret what is said; inferring that you being targeted/dismissed for not knowing the insider-code-words, when in reality it is fairly standard, across a variety of blogs/forums, for moderators to curb threads which they consider off-topic or containing personal attacks. You were continuing on from Dylan Kerrigan’s ‘PoMo’ inspired rant attacking Scott for his hegemonic White b/s, hence it is hardly shocking that Peter would provide a warning.

And in terms of your substantive points, as you acknowledge, both Peter and Scott do seek to make their work engage with a broad audience (hence, the existence of this blog!) and are promoters of interdisciplinary research but this shouldn’t preclude them, or anyone else, from having thoughts on the various issues besetting academic disciplines to which they belong or interact. And is there a better place to put such thoughts than on a public blog? Would you prefer they were tucked away behind in a pay-wall in some academic journal There is always a danger of navel gazing/tribal politics when academics are discussing academic disciplines but some degree of self reflexivity and criticism is necessary and this is a point both science minded and PoMo advocates are likely to agree on.

Lee Doran

Oh dear, Chris, I just spent quite a long time replying to yours in detail and then lost the draft because I’m such a newbie in these places.. Maybe that’s a good thing for you and other readers…;) Now you get the short version…hahaha

I was trying to thank you for such a sensible and measured and reasonable response. I almost totally agree with it.

The reason I went into the personal stuff (which I agree is irrelevant to others and unforgivably self-indulgent to do publicly) is because a couple of people from here are attending the forum and that was my ham-handed way of pleading with them to blog about it soonest rather than forcing us all to wait the 18 months or two years to read the letter perfect publication of its results. (That too may be naive as the results may well be proprietary in some way (?) … who knows these days?…)

On ‘PoMo’ I said that I am reading something called “The End of Capitalism as We Knew it” by two women writing under a single pen-name and it is the second (vying for first place) best thing I have ever read on capitalism. And that I wouldn’t be getting it now if I hadn’t spent decades reading ‘their’ stuff and not getting it. It takes perseverance to understand when new things are being said and new lingo is being generated as a result in new disciplines.

And that: thus, ‘PoMo’ is an integral part of the biggest peaceful revolution in human history — the development and integration of the feminine into the human project outside the family (where it has resided bringing all of the species to where it is now forever) and holds the biggest single, best and probably only hope for the species survival … We can only hope that many others ‘get it’ in time, as well. And that they both get it and live it, too.

Thanks so much for listening,


Chris Kavanagh


The same thing with the lost replies has happened to me many, many times, so I feel your pain! I’ll try and kept things short too but wanted to say thanks for the response. I think your modest request for participants to blog/write about their experiences at the conference is entirely reasonable and would have been worth stating directly (as you now have). I’d be interested in the event too and people are always free to ignore/heed such requests as they see fit.

I also would hope the conference presentations were not proprietary but as you say who knows! Personally, I upload the powerpoints of any presentations to where they are freely available, I know many won’t feel comfortable doing this, but open (or at least more accesible) access is increasingly becoming a common trend (see Peter’s self-publishing efforts for a recent example). If you don’t use I would encourage you to do so because a) it is free and b) you can request papers/presentations from academics directly there and I’ve, so far, had quite positive responses from such requests.

In regards PoMo, I spent 5 years studying at SOAS which is one of the most pro-PoMo universities in the UK. I don’t regret my time there and I do think there are some valuable things that come out of that approach, the problem (as always) is when people take things to the extreme. I won’t go into more detail, as per Peter’s request, but I would also add that while I agree and admire your call for greater awareness/participation from ‘female (inspired) perspectives’, I think we need to be very careful not to reify some science=male, humanities=female stereotype.

Lee Doran

Thank you again for your good sense Chris.

Of course you are correct, I should just consider asking them directly …(Duh … why wasn’t that obvious to me?) I will think about that and probably do it…

I don’t know academia so that is a great recommendation. I will follow up on it with pleasure, it sounds like.

Without discussing the big-ish picture (♂ vs ♀ issue) at that level (I agree that is much too simplistic — isn’t that the point, though, of much of PoMo? … i.e., to explore the diversity and the complexity in the world? … get away from the binary mindset?). I wonder if you have read a book called “The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It)”? It has finally connected me with the whole PoMo thing in a way I never would have thought possible. Reading them and their impossibly insider lingo (but I still get it — somehow their writing is very very clear even though totally discipline/specialist-based) has literally blown my mind. Yesterday I was reading their discussion about the diversity of economies in the wake of “Capitalism (As We Knew It)” and they referred to “Epistemology of the Closet” (EoC) which immediately set off bells and whistles in my head once I read the library summary and the book’s ToC. The penny dropped not only wrt my own life and sexuality including its trajectory over my life but on a lot of bigger picture issues including my own work on the science of sex and violence in society, but also how the sexual basis of almost everything human works. Major insights (for me)!

Frantic search for EoC in local libraries ensued (I live right d/t so many are available in walking distance). First two (one municipal, one uni) : book missing…. ahhh, it’s one of those cult books that those who get it covet (read: steal this book). Abandoned my evening meeting commitment in the frenzy of the search. Finally found it electronically at another uni library, but not sure if it’s whole … seems to be a series of 10 page pdfs instead of whole chapters (weird). finally, next uni library has actual physical book which looks hardly ever cracked, but I’m late for dinner.

This AM if it turns out that I don’t have the whole book electronically, back to scan whole real book that (along with End of Capitalism), I’m quite certain, is about to change my life — again! I thought 2014 was the second Momentous Year in my life (the first was 1974) [I guess actually they are the third and second after the first Momentous Year — that of my birth: 1944] but now — already — 2015 is looking to rival them.

Thanks again for listening Chris. If you know of either of these two books — or can suggest others that connect me so directly to such big issues (capitalism and sex!) through that PoMo lens — could you let me know more? Do you think we should continue this discussion (if we do) off here? I’m at:

Cheers, and thanks again,


Justin E. Lane

I would like to push the comments above a bit further and ask a question. In regards to the point above (which I agree with) where it is noted that there is a problem with taking “culture” as a causal entity or variable:
What about the problems noted in the article and the comments above, can not be addressed by cognitive science as rooted in information theory? I don’t know that we need natural selection at all to ask these questions, even over long time periods. It seems that cognitive science (as an information processing paradigm) can cover the trends locally of interest to anthropologists as well as the larger trends over time (cultural evolution, cliodynamics, etc.)

Peter Turchin

Well, if you have change with time in the frequency of variants (whether cultural, genetic, or anything else), that’s evolution. It’s possible to study such processes without ever uttering the word ‘evolution’, but why?

Justin E. Lane

Why indeed is my question. To say that something varies and changes over time that it is evolution is only useful if situating it within an interpretive paradigm (i.e. evolution). It explains nothing about the dynamics of the target phenomenon. Drawing the analogy only goes so far in its use and leads (almost always in the case of religion or culture) to overextension. For instance, to say that “culture” (undefined and unquantified) evolves doesn’t explain anything. However, I could be misunderstanding the point of much of the related literature as I have assumed that it is attempting to create an explanatory framework for how culture changes.

Peter Turchin

Evolution is defined not when ‘something’ changes, but change in the frequency of variants. Explaining why some variants increase and others decrease is where all the action is. Read Richerson and Boyd, who lay out the variety of forces of cultural evolution. Cultural Evolution is well-defined (if young) field with well-developed theoretical framework (much of it translated into mathematical models).

Read Not By Genes Alone. Later this year I am planning to publish my own textbook on Social and Cultural Evolution.

Justin E. Lane

I agree that it is at times well defined mathematically (having read through most of the literature produced on CE), however I don’t see a generalized framework that *predicts* why some variants increase in frequency. One issue here seems to be the question of how the fitness of a cultural variant is defined? I can see in the literature that fitness can be quantified by an increase in some physical affordance (i.e. in the case of the recurved bow). However, so many cultural beliefs have no quantifiable benefit but are simply there because they are the result of mnenomic or cognitive proclivities or are spandrels of our cognitive architecture. In these cases, we can’t “predict” that one cultural variant will increase rather than another (at least not given the CE literature to date: Relevance seems to be a far more reasonable theory for predicting that-with a few noticeably lacking additions such as a quantification of a schema). However, we can *post-dict* and document the change only to later interpret that evidence in light of adaptation and evolution.
I do see a lot of strength in the propositions of cultural evolution. However, I wouldn’t say it is well defined in regards to what its target of analysis is (i.e. “culture”). It isn’t specific enough in its definitions of what is and isn’t “culture” and this can be seen not only in the debate about culture above, but also in the fact that all too often the mathematical descriptions are only applicable in certain domains of cognition or cultural materials (i.e. the bow and arrow not being comparable to a non-falsifiable religious or cultural belief). So I would say that CE has proposed brilliantly elegant models of the teleological progression of bow and arrow technology (among many other examples offered in the 2013 volume Cultural Evolution), but I wouldn’t say that these represent a model of “cultural evolution”.
I do look forward to your textbook! To date I can say that War and Peace and War and Secular Cycles are some of the most influential texts on my own work on cultural modelling and I look forward to seeing this as well. Perhaps it will make me less opposed to considering models of cultural change as “evolutionary”.

Ross David H

Scott, thank you for introducing me to a discussion I hadn’t known existed. I have much to ponder in your essay, but on only one small point am I ready to actually ask something.

How much of an obstacle do you think adequate statistical training is? I ask because of your comment on “outliers”. Generally speaking, thinking probabilistically is hard. There are many fields where someone who can do it well can be more than adequately compensated. Many well-compensated fields are STILL short of people who are comfortable with both statistics and software like R to apply statistical analysis with. I am sure there are anthropologists who have these skills, but I’d be surprised if there were not a shortage.

The general question of how our economy encourages/discourages people with different skill sets to go into different fields of science, is one that scientists generally don’t like to talk about. But if other fields hire away all the people who are comfortable with statistics and statistical software packages, it cannot but be difficult for the field generally to be comfortable with probabilistic concepts.

But I’m pretty far away from this field, and would be happy to hear you say this is not actually a problem for anthropology (or psychiatry, for that matter).

Ross David H

“psychology”, I meant to say “psychology” in that last sentence.

david ronfeldt

scott, if you’ve time and energy for more: thanks for pointing out the articles on your work by sara reardon. also, i’ve glanced at your articles in cliodynamics. they prompt some observations and questions:

reardon’s overview reports that “The best predictors turn out to be things like who your friends are and whether you belong to some action group.” and that “extremism arises, in part, when membership in a group reinforces deeply held ideals, and an individual’s identity merges with the group’s”. the abstracts for cliodynamics also mention the significance of “sacred values” and an “identity fusion” that generates “a collective sense of invincibility and special destiny”, along with a belief in “control over their future”.

i like these findings, for they help confirm that what’s going on in terrorist (not to mention other kinds of) mindsets can be reduced to and analyzed as a bundle of space, time, and action orientations — and that analysts, who normally specialize in only one of the three cognitive orientations, would be well advised to develop a comprehensive space-time-action approach to theory and analysis. my sense is that spatial orientations (e.g., about identity, connectivity, barriers) are as (and often more) important than time perspectives as cognitive pre-conditions for becoming a terrorist. but other analysts may say otherwise (e.g., zimbardo & boyd’s book on time perspectives that emphasizes beliefs in a transcendental future, or maybe bandura’s work on self-efficacy as an action/agency orientation, though he never worked on terrorism explicitly).

the summaries of your work indicate that it is looking into a range of space, time, and action orientations. i’d wish to know more about this. yet, i’m inclined to agree with the reardon’s quotes from john horgan: “We’re only beginning to figure out what the right questions are” and “Psychology’s potential for the study of terrorism has yet to be realized.”

Gene Anderson

Most of the article is great, but saying anthropologists have “catalogued” all the other cultures (or whatever) and that everybody is now assimilated to the great global schlup is absolutely off track! My many Native American friends, from north Canada to Maya Mexico, will all rise up in a body against that one. Scott, you have worked with the Maya enough to know it’s nonsense. 1) nobody was some kind of pristine Primitive Man. Haven’t been for 300,000 years or so. But, 2) that hasn’t prevented the Maya and 6800 or so other groups from creating brilliant and exciting cultures (sic) through borrowing, globalizing, etc. There are terribly important recording things to do. We still have almost no detailed accounts in their own words of nonliterate people’s worldviews, cosmologies, or philosophies. Recently there have been a few, mostly by anthropologists who are themselves Native Americans (Richard Atleo, Earl George, several others), and they show what is still out there. Way, way more than cataloguing, and it’s important work that needs to be done.

Scott Atran

Gene, you’re right, but there is very much that is fast fading even as we record.

Is Scott Aran a Euro-American white male, trained in Euro-American and lost in his ethnocentrism? Sure sounds like one. Try understanding that what you are talking about is not universal across the whole world. It is universal to the Western tradition and not all other tradition. This kinda white b/s is part of the problem and not the solution. More navel gazing by white hegemony. Yawn. Agree on the culture isnt causal tho

WARNING: The Social Evolution Forum is a platform for serious discussion between scientists and interested public focusing on ideas, not personalities. No Ad Hominem attacks are allowed. That Scott Atran is a Euro-American white man is irrelevant to the discussion. Next such comment will result in a permanent banning from this Forum.

scott atran

Ah, good to see someone so enamored of their own postcolonial rhetoric and its stereotypes, adds authentic, exotic spice to the forum (hope that reaction doesn’t disappoint)

Lee Doran

Thanks Scott … it doesn’t disappoint at all, except that I don’t understand what it means… and actually now that I think about it I’m not sure if it is directed at me or not?

This does help to prove my point, however …. I am a human who can’t be expected to understand necessarily what “postcolonial rhetoric and its stereotypes” means … in fact it sounds like post-postcolonial rhetoric and presumed counter-stereotypes to me (!)… the insiders talking in their own lingo to other insiders does not do the topic or the discussion justice, imho

This may simply be my neophyte blog replier status showing, but I’m not totally getting it …

So: I do hope you or someone else will have the patience to unpack it a bit for me..

Thanks again,


PS OK I’ve read the string a couple more times and am now thinking that Atran’s glib one-liner response is to Kerrigan’s point, which admittedly as the Editor points out does have an inappropriate ad hominem bit to it … but in my view the point is valid w/o the ad hominem elements. I for one would like to hear a response of substance to the point being made.

To try and be more clear, despite the phrasing of the Kerrigan comment, I don’t regard it as a rhetorical point being made. What is the substantive response to the substance of the comment?

Thanks for your continued indulgence…

Best to all,


Peter Turchin

Hi Lee, thank you for your comment. But I must insist that we do not go into a discussion of PoMo versus science. This is not what this Forum is for. This may sound undemocratic to you, but as the editor-in-chief of this web resource I get to set the policy on what constitutes the subject matter for the SEF, and what is not. So all, please desist, or I will be forced to close this post for comments, which I’d prefer not to do. If interested to pursue this particular issue, take the discussion elsewhere.

Lee Doran

Wow, Peter… now I am really lost … how did we get from what I thought I was trying to say to “PoMo versus science”? I can’t even begin to make that leap — to get from there to here.

Once again, there is some kind of subtext or side conversation or insider-code-words thing going on here that automatically signals their “them” to our “us” and we are off and running with the not so micro-aggression again. I guess it’s some massive rift in the academy where one side doesn’t talk to the other and both sides speak in code to themselves alone…a kind of wink, wink academic terrorism 😉

I go back to right where I began — the first thing this morning … this is totally weird for me … and to hear it from you folks is profoundly disappointing, as well.

Isn’t it incumbent upon those of us who profess to understand some of this stuff to actually at least make an effort to live it?

Best to all,


Ross David H

I love it when the word “hegemony” is added to the conversation.

Scott Atran

Lee, if you tell me what substantive point is, then I will try to address it.

Lee Doran

OK, Scott. It seems to me the core of what he is saying without the editorializing and ad hominems is:

“Try understanding that what you are talking about is not universal across the whole world. It is universal to the Western tradition and not all other tradition.”

On close re-reading of yours (which is really multiple interesting posts conflated), you did agree with him on that point at least twice. So I guess that’s one response.

However, my close re-reading may have helped me to understand your higher level angst (and I guess the competing-social-discipline focus which I found navel-gazing). Here is the conclusion stripped to its bare bones:

” …actually figuring out what a causal science of human beings might actually look like, linking [individual cognitions, social networks, local institutions and ecologies] in causal, materially identifiable chains… to at least the commonsense regularities that make sense to politicians and peoples…”

At the highest level, the laudable goal of some kind of science of humanity that is communicable to politicians and peoples and, presumably, cautiously actionable. But the four factors I have square bracketed really only encompass a SOCIAL science of human beings; hence, the discipline angst. A deeper or broader — say, socially and biologically informed — science of humanity would look very very different indeed. And that latter is what I was referring to with my inter-disciplinary (or lack of) rant.

Best regards,


Scott Atran

Let me provide, in partial response to this, a communication I received regarding this thread from Larry Hirschfeld, Professor of Anthropology and Psychology at the New School for Social Research (with his permission). Larry is well known for his rigorous studies of the making of race and, more generally, how human categories are constructed developmentally and across cultures. He takes me to task for underplaying anthropological sensitivity and trivializing postmodern critique, which he thinks can be not a replacement to a scientific approach to human beings but a corrective. In this he may be right:

“What really surprises me in your statement is what almost certainly will be taken as a complete dismissal of anthropology. We’ll aside what anthropologists now publish, and instead look at what YOU DO. What anthropologists still try to do and what you do and what you constantly rely on is an ethnographic sensibility. The idea that schmoozing isn’t just talk, but a way of creating images of how people experience their environments, the things that they imagine as worth reflecting on and possibly challenging and things that not only go without saying, but about which no one has a choice. And this sensibility is not some catalogue of the interior landscapes and putative significances but a sensibility to issues of the way power, authority, and advantage are localized and linked to thoughts, expectations, emotions, sentiments, fears, pretty much any of the things that shape behavior. You have enormous faith that knowledge you value derives from knowing people through this sensibility (which includes of course how historical phenomena play out among individuals). So, this isn’t science of course—unless you want to resurrect the old model of doing natural history. But it’s also not the musings that lead to insight—whatever it is that physicists think they are doing when they come up with something long before it’s a theory. Einstein had a bon mot about it, but I can’t recall it now. Even if we can’t formalize it—that is, find a way to say that you need an anthropologist on a “team” do provide an ethnographic sensibility—to pretend that it isn’t what has shaped just about everything you’ve worked on since I’ve known you, is curious. The point of the postmodern critique of culture is that it’s nothing like the thing in our mind’s eye. Suddenly it’s something that needs explaining. Admittedly they haven’t done any of that, but the critique brought the insight. And your training and faith in ethnographic engagement make me wonder why you’re unwilling to acknowledge it’s part in a science of humans (in itself an odd and constrained goal).

Lee Doran

||Yes of course … this so brusquely rejected and dismissed PoMo is a huge part of and major contribution to what it means to be human these days… |I mean DUH…not connecting with it at some level is just– or at least not trying to understand it is well, just dismissive,or even silly



Raymond Scupin


I know that you are probably in Iraq at this time and I don’t know if you have access to this forum at this time. However, I find your comments very useful. And, I find the comments of Larry H. useful too. The pomo types such as Lila Abu-Lughod and others who questioned the concept of culture had some perceptive insights regarding culture as a deus ex machina or determinate and autonomous and muscular variable in the Geertzian sense.

I had a couple of questions regarding your original post here. First, what are you referring to when you mention emergent properties from social networks? I am not quite clear what this means. Also, you are critical of the stereotypical differences between ‘individualistic’ versus ‘collectivist’ societies. As an Asian specialist I am also critical of these notions. However, haven’t I seen you refer to Richard Nisbett’s studies of perceptions by Asian versus Westerners regarding holistic or individualistic perspectives in a positive manner? I am somewhat skeptical of Nisbett’s claims based on his research and this skepticism emerged by other scholars on Dan Sperber’s Culture and Cognition site some time ago.

Your thoughts? Ray

Peter Turchin

Ray, while waiting for Scott’s response, could you possibly provide a ref to Abu-Lughod’s critique of culture? Thanks in advance.

scott atran

I have great respect for the work of my friend, Dick Nisbett, whose ingenious cross-cultural experiments show, among other things, the existence of two broad cognitive styles for associating people, places, events and other things: categorical (e.g., cows and buffaloes go together) and thematic (e.g., cows and grass go together). He, along with colleagues and students, have also shown that U.S. and European students and other WEIRD people (from western, educated, industralized, rich, democratic socities) favor categorical over thematic reasoning in context-independent tasks to which WEIRD people, including their children, are particualrly accustomed. But it is almost a trivial matter to get WEIRD people to think thematically through priming, and to get other people to think categorically through priming. This suggests that these distinctions in cognitive style are not very deep (indeed, the over-representation of visiting East Asian students in U.S. university mathematics departments, which are assumedly the most refined repositories of categorical reasoning, suggests their easy disregard of thematic reasoning when conditions warrant). A for the putative “individualist” versus “collectivist” social and historical implications of these rather superficial differences in preference for one broad cognitive style over another, I am far from convinced (just as I am regarding recent notions of the supposed wheat-culture vs. rice-culture origins of these differences in preference).

Lee Doran

This is fascinating Scott.

1. Does this imply that these distinctions and others that follow from them (clash of East vs West, e.g.) that many social scientists go on about are equally shallow?

2. Has anyone looked at the differences across sex/gender lines for these categorical vs thematic thinkers? There’s a basic difference between humans/within humanity that might be more indicative of fulsome (as opposed to shallow) differences between groups. Who knows…

Best to all,


PS. I found the “Writing against Culture” piece very useful and informative and relevant. I don’t know how — for the bigger picture project of a science of humanity that includes the group-ish behavior of the species — ‘we’ can ignore this substantive body of serious scholarship. I certainly understand how the moderators of certain discussions in particular places need to keep their discussions within the bounds they set (for whatever reason) but when we get to the level of the broader discussion/science we seek, how can it not be included (even though I appreciate Chris suggestion that the next round of debate has already occurred or is ongoing). This is not a rhetorical question.


Scott Atran

Here’s part of my response on a Evo Psych website citing a finding that the degree of “individualist” versus “collectivist” difference actually depends on DRD4 gene variants of those measured.

Sorry, but a correlation between a mass mix of undifferentiated cognitive processes and behaviors that go into the notion of “holistic” or “collectivist” and some genetic regularity is at best, only marginally more scientifically interesting and deep than (the much more highly significant) correlations between: US spending of science technology & suicides by suffocation (r=.99); per capita cheese consumption & deaths from entanglement in bedsheets (r=.94); divorce rate in Maine & per capita consumption of margarine (r=.99); honey bee producing colonies & juvenile arrests for marijuana possession (r=.93); per capita consumption of Mozarella cheese & civil engineering doctorates awarded (r=.96), ETC. (actually, as Hirschfeld notes, there maybe a dissertation to be had in exploring the link between number of PACS and people falling out of wheelchairs (r= .92).

Raymond Scupin



Here’s the link to Abu-Lughod’s essay with the citation at he bottom
Best, Ray

Chris Kavanagh

Ray, I know you are not advocating Abu-Lughod’s perspective but wonder if you ever came across the excellent defence of the concept and its continued use ‘Writing for culture’ by Christoph Brumann? I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the newest round of debating ‘culture’:

I’m also interested in why you dislike Nisbett’s work, I recently attended a presentation by his collaborator Takahiko Masuda in Hokkaido and found his presentation quite compelling. I thought some of the perceptual differences that Nisbett discusses were quite well established now? See for instance:

Might be going too off-topic now though…

Peter Turchin


david ronfeldt

john michael greer provided an excellent overview of nisbett’s book at his blog here:

not to mention a related post by greer about social cognition and culture here:

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