Saturday, April 26, 2008

Monkey’s Uncle

In a recent post, James Jones at Stanford made an argument (which I guess also stirred up some debate in the EANTH list) in which he challenged the idea that culture lies at the center of ecological anthropology.

Human behavioral ecologists, a group of scholars mentioned in the big-tent description of ecological anthropology also focus their analysis on behavior, and specifically decision-making. Culture may play a role in such decision-making processes, but it need not.

[From On Culture and Ecological Anthropology On monkey’s uncle]

This is an interesting claim that comes from, as Jones admits in his post, from his training in a lineage based in social anthropology rather than cultural anthropology. This lineage of anthropology has it roots in the British observations living populations around the world. In general terms, the experiences and studies were far different than the case for North America anthropologists. Here (i.e., North America) anthropologists like Franz Boaz were largely interested in studying living populations (i.e., Native Americans) with the goal of extracting elements that were supposedly in common with non-extant populations (i.e., prehistoric groups). This focus is the root of Americanist anthropology has many have noted. It is important to recognize here that the interests for early North American anthropologists were not in recording the living conditions, behavior, health, and social and economic relations of Native Americans of the time (generally around the turn of the 20th century). Rather, the emphasis was placed on identifying common themes that comprised “traditions,” “practices,”, “arts,” language, songs, myths, stories and “material culture.” The emphasis of course is based on the idea that the ideas held in common by contemporary Native populations given their ancestry were shared with their prehistoric ancestors. This focus is “culture” and its the engine that drove cultural anthropology in North America until after WWII.

Social anthropology, on the other hand, was based in a context of world wide colonialism. British anthropology emerged as natural historians began to systematically describe populations that lived in regions across the globe. For the Brits, culture just wasn’t a necessary or central concept since they had no need to reconstruct anything: they could just observe behavior directly. It is useful to note, however, that the roots of social anthropology also hold many of the roots of cultural evolution (sensu Spencer, Tylor, Morgan, etc.) since the British were in a position to compare living systems to one another and within Victorian thinking, one could array scaled descriptions along a line of “evolution” from simple (people elsewhere) to complex (i.e., Europeans). This is just common sense thinking, of course, hidden the guise as “meaningful” observations that are predetermined by the descriptions used, and assumptions about the nature of the arrow of change and the direction that the arrow is supposed to take.

So, from this, we can see why Jones might argue that culture just isn’t necessary to do anthropology. From the perspective of his educational and training lineage, it isn’t.

But then what of the notion of culture? What role does culture need to play (if any) in the description and explanation of human history, behavior and diversity? I think there are two ways we can look at this.

First, from ideational basis - we can ask whether the concept of culture is core to ecological anthropology as discussed by Jones. From this perspective we can see that the answer depends. It depends on the kind of anthropology one is trying to do (i.e., the lineage in which one works.) Are you describing behavior or are you describing cultural variability? In contemporary anthropology in North America, these questions have no single answer and are the source of many debates. For this reason, most anthropology departments define themselves as “socio-cultural anthropology” in order to make the tent large enough to cover anyone (and anything they do). Contention still arises. For example. a variety of the “debate” that marked the 70s and 80s between Schiffer and Binford had at their origin the issue of whether or not the goal of archaeology is to reconstruct behavior directly (to explain it as decision making) or reconstruct behavior in order to reconstruct the cultural system (where culture = an adaptive system) that then can be explained by generalizations. This is not the place to address these issues other than to point out they are based on the same question: do we need culture in our analyses?

The second way we might evaluate the notion of “usefulness” of culture is from a phenomenological perspective. Is there a “chunk” of the world that we might want to account for that lives under our common sensical empirical generalization of “culture?” It is here, that I say that the answer is qualified yes, though more discussion is required to talk about the what this phenomena is where our explanation of it comes from and how we can conceive the explanation.

Empirically and Binford’s (i.e., Leslie White’s) notion of culture as a “system” (which is a derivation of the behavioralist agenda, rather than culture per se as discussed by early cultural anthropologists) aside, speaking the “identification” of culture tends to center on the recognition that some sets of observations in which similarity is measured (though not all) can be explained due to sharing. Here, sharing is meant to imply “relatedness” or and explanation that suggest that information moved between two entities through some process we call “culture.” Culture as used in this way is specifically ideational not empirical, though the concept is used to describe (and thus explain) some chunk of the world. Cornealius Osgood (1951) did an admirable job (though on initial reading, completely baffling) of teasing out the various ontological aspects of culture.

Now, of course, this doesn’t really “prove” that we need culture - this recognition simply points out that anthropologists have found it useful to describe parts of the world as “cultural” which implies something about sharing. More recent work has sought to expand this generalization into something more systematic (you might look here for some references related to this but this is only a small subset ). Here, researchers agree that some portion of any particular description of human behavior is the product of “sharing” caused by observation of the world around them. Does this mean that human behavior is “cultural” and thus culture must be involved in any explanation of humans? Well, not exactly.

First, we have to see that ultimately everything we do has a biochemical origin. From bones to organs to behavior to language to ideas” there are empirical mechanisms to which cause can ultimately be attributed. Now, this isn’t very far from the general statement that science has a theory component that permits it to create statements that can be evaluated in terms of veracity. It simply points out that we can evaluate our claims (and this is what make what we say science). The claim also just distinguish we are going to say from the many other ways in which one might account for human behavior — spirits, deities, or whatever.

What frightens many people about this claim is that somehow implying that (1) we are not separate from the natural world and (2) that this claim means that we are robots driven mechanistically by biology and the physical world around us. Well, the first worry is one that caused by our (Eurowestern) common sense. The truth, though, perhaps scary is simply the way it is: we need to man up and recognize this fact as philosophers, natural historians, poets (e.g., Gary Snyder) and writers have told us over and over over. We are part of the natural world. There is nothing intrinsic about us that makes us separate from the natural world and to believe differently is to ignore 150 years of work since the publication of Darwin’s Origins of the Species. Of course, we can define ourselves, as special by waving flags around about "creativity" and "cleverness" or whatever -but anything can be differentiated from anything else if you pick the right words. The key here is that from a science perspective we are part of the natural world and there is no reason we can't explain ourselves in a falsifiable, empirically robust means we explain the rest of the universe. (Just how we do that needs to be the subject of an additional post.)

Regarding the second point, that we are robots, is entirely misguided. It is true that we have a empirical, physical and biochemical basis but it in no way “determines’” what we do. From a science perspective, we hold this to be true: we cannot start with a basis stating that some parts of us are caused by the non-physical world. If we held that as axiomatic, we might as well give up in the first place. But saying that we are physical entities doesn't force us to a position where we are simply robots with behavior dictated by specific empirical inputs and programming. Not at all. Instead we can say that we have a physical basis for everything but not all aspects of what we do are strictly determined by one-to-one inputs/outputs. In fact, most of what we do is not determined in this way. We call this part of our behavior as "cultural" and it is arena that anthropologists hold court.

Conceived in this way, anthropology is generally focused on the area of explanation that is just above that of biochemical (though it can include biochemical dimensions) and below that in which examine us in terms of an example of self-organizing and replicating entities benefiting from the contingent nature of the universe that happened to include things like the sun, planets that coalesce, and other physical determinants. Anthropology is (generally speaking, as there are some really oddball claims out there) somewhere in between. We are bootstrapped beings - historically contingent entities that begin as a series of chemical in a sequence and through iterative expression, growth and development emerge as a series of functionally organized "systems" that work together in a remarkably complex way and that ultimately create additional bootstrapping iterative contingent things we call our "cognitive minds." Its empirical all the way down, but not in a way in which one can look at any historical part and determine all aspects of the outcome. As S.J. Gould has famously said "history matters." That statement is true for us as physical beings and as cultural entities.

But as Dick Gaughan has sung, its not what you are given but what you do with what you got. Behavioral anthropologists (i.e., “ecological anthropology”) tend to focus on explanations that have at their basis the decision making that individuals engage in at any point in time - claiming that (1) these decisions are informed by the structure of the environment and perceived payoffs and (2) we have algorithms for making decisions that have evolved over time (usually some time in the Pleistocene). At some level, this position works — we do make decisions and some of those decisions seem to be explicable in terms of our particular ice-y history. But is it complete as Jones might argue?

Here, is where I have to wonder. Not all of the variability we see in human behavior (and the phenomenological dimensions in which we can measure) seems to be just about decision making. People’s behavior is strongly correlated with that around them. As work myself and colleagues have shown (and upon which they have expanded), large chunks of human behavior can be explained as a function of copying - not decision making at all. At the same time, people are remarkably conservative in their decisions — continuing to do things long after the environmental conditions should dictate that they make alternate decisions. The continued investment in things like and long after all economic indicators pointed out that this was not going to turn out well can’t easy be explained as simple “decision-making.” We can make up stories about why people didn't change their minds, but these are just stories. What happened is that in general (and with a distribution of probabilities) people tend to more often than not copy themselves and only on a rare basis (relative to the rate at which decisions can be made and scale of the effect of those decisions at any point in time). We know that there must be something to this since we can readily define lineages of many dimensions of culture — continued self-copied variability combined by occasional copying biased by those around individuals. If people changed their minds all the time we would have a bushy history indeed (or as John Terrell would say, an "entangled bank."). At least at some levels of measurements we can see this is not true.

This aspect of the phenomena we study as anthropologists makes me think that culture is ultimately a core concept, if only because it provide the right scale of description and explanation relative to the domain of our discipline. It is true, we could ultimately link everything to specific biochemical dimensions and mechanisms - that is conceptually possible —but its just as possible as it is to explain the behavior of a bouncing ball using quantum mechanics. We can do it, but have we learned more in the end? We have to ask whether or not doing this provides us any new insight into behavior: explaining the chunk of the world at the scale we do continues to challenge us and provide insight into our own history, behavior and materials. Ultimately, we might find that there are dimensions of variability in which we need to invoke other levels of explanation - but that hasn’t proven the case thus far. Like the quantum mechanical explanations of beachball bouncing - there may come a point where that level of explanation may prove useful to account for some particular quirk at some scale that is not readily accountable by newtonian physics, but that day has yet to come. The same is true for "cultural behavior." At least for now.

This is the area of the domain of anthropology that I would have to say requires some kind of concept like “culture” - where culture is about shared ideas.

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