Extension and Embodiment in Cultural Evolution

September 19-20, 2013, University of Cambridge

The noted social anthropologist Clifford Geertz warned in 1973 that ‘the main source of theoretical muddlement in contemporary anthropology is a view which […] is right now very widely held—namely, that […] “culture [is located] in the minds and hearts of men.” ’. The view that Geertz opposed is precisely the one upheld by many influential cultural evolutionists: as Richerson and Boyd put it in their (2005) manifesto for an evolutionary approach to culture, ‘culture is (mostly) information stored in human brains’. This standoff is symptomatic of a more general debate over the proper role of appeals to cognition in understanding cultural change and cultural stasis: cultural evolutionists have tended to argue that cognition has central explanatory relevance, while many social anthropologists (with some notable exceptions) have recently been sceptical of such appeals to cognition (Bloch 2012). In this conference, our contributors look at the question of whether cognition itself occurs solely ‘in human brains’, or whether cognition should instead be properly thought of as occurring partly in embodied action, or partly in extra-bodily artefacts (Clark and Chalmers 1998). Appeals to embodied or extended forms of cognition open up the possibility of a variety of rapprochements between cultural evolution and social anthropology, for they signal moves away from a conceptualisation of cultural traits as atoms located in the heads of individuals, and towards a notion of cognition as partially constituted by, or realised in, social and technical environments (Henare et al 2007).


URL: http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/2497/

Posted: September 12, 2013