AFRAID OF THE THIRD CULTURE? [5.1.06]
Ramachandran, Freedberg, Dennett, Atran, Elster: new approaches in the study of society, art, and religion
Anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, disciplines that have based their autonomy on the claim that the system of social actions and human cultures is largely independent from their biological foundation, today make way for naturalistic research programs and the methods of the natural sciences.
Introduction by John Brockman
A few months ago, during a visit to Paris, I was invited to dinner at the home of philosopher Gloria Origgi and social and cognitive scientist Dan Sperber which was attended by half a dozen researchers attending a mirror neuron conference on the outskirts of Paris.
During the dinner, Origgi made a number of interesting observations regarding the growing presence of the third culture in France. She pointed out that the mirror neuron conference was an example of how the "naturalistic" scientists — those who are engaged in a realistic biology of mind — are gaining sway over the scientists and others in disciplines that rely on studying social actions and human cultures independent from their biological foundation.
This began in the early seventies, when, as a graduate student at Harvard, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers wrote five papers that set forth an agenda for a new field: the scientific study of human nature. In the past thirty-odd years which has spawned thousands of scientific experiments, new and important evidence, and exciting new ideas about who and what we are presented in books by scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Edward O. Wilson among many others.
Recognition of this development can cause pain to those not participating in the conversation. "Anthropology, linguistics, and sociology," Origgi writes, "disciplines that have based their autonomy on the claim that the system of social actions and human cultures is largely independent from their biological foundation, today make way for naturalistic research programs and the methods of the natural sciences. "Is a third culture possible," she asks, "in which the natural sciences take part in making sense of ourselves and our actions?"
Origgi points out that there is ongoing discussion and debate among the third culture scientists on how to consider the social and cultural aspects of our lives as part of the the new scientific conversation. For example, see the robust discussion in "The Reality Club" comments regarding John Horgan's essay on The Templeton Foundation.
essay was originally published in the "Scienza e Filosofia" section
of the Italian
Sole 24 Ore. (Click here for
the PDF file.)
WHO'S AFRAID OF THE THIRD CULTURE?
(GLORIA ORIGGI:) It is remarkable that the discovery of a class of premotor neurons in the brain of macaque monkeys should seem to have important repercussions on our understanding the nature of human sociality. What does, after all, the activation of a cell of the nervous system of a monkey have to do with the intricacies of our social relations?
Beyond the fascinating arguments provoked by this discovery (*), this illustrates the changes that have taken place in the last twenty years in the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities, that is “the two cultures,” defined by C.P. Snow in his famous 1959 essay. Anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, disciplines that have based their autonomy on the claim that the system of social actions and human cultures is largely independent from their biological foundation, today make way for naturalistic research programs and the methods of the natural sciences.
is a third culture possible,
as defined by John Brockman, in which the natural sciences take
part in making sense of ourselves and our actions?
for instance the project of neuroaesthetics: Vilayanur Ramachandran
identifies ten universal “laws” of
aesthetic experience, one of which says that neurological responses to “exaggerated” stimuli
(such as an eye twice the size of a normal eye) are at the base of our aesthetic
preferences (a neurological effect present also in mice called “peak shift”).
The claim of having replaced the “vague speculations of historians” by
scientific principles of aesthetic evaluation seems rather grand.
The study of the psychological response to works of art has,
however, been undertaken by expert art historians such as David
Freedberg, who, in his seminal work The Power
of Images sought to
understand the universal psychological and anthropological
constraints on human responses to images. There is nothing
reductionist or anti-historical in Freedberg’s approach; he
is just attempting to improve our understanding by drawing
on the resources of the natural sciences.
Dennett brings together speculations on the idea of group selection, on the evolution of religious institutions, and on the selection over time of sets of beliefs based on authority and immune to proof. Here too, Dennett’s total confidence in a Darwinian approach to religion may be seen as irritatingly premature. However, even if Dennett’s all-encompassing evolutionistic teleology may look like a form of religious creed, this does not mean that looking at religion with the help of natural sciences is a misguided project.
need only turn directly to the anthropological works from which
Dennett draws partial inspiration to find studies, like that
of Scott Atran’s In
Gods We Trust. Atran balances evolutionary
arguments, ecological and anthropological observations, and psychological
experiments in order to reconstruct the “ecological landscape” in
which a system of beliefs evolves and persists. He explains the difference
between animistic, pantheistic, and monotheistic religions in terms
of the psychological “distance” between
the images that different human groups have of their biological environment
and of society: where representations of nature and of society tend
to merge (as in totemic societies), we find animistic religions.
The greater the distance between these representations, the more
people tend towards monotheistic systems. Atran’s work
provides an example of a perspective that, without being reductionist
or anti-historicist, draws on the natural sciences in its explanation
of a religious phenomenon.
then a third culture possible? There is a strong temptation to see
in these smoothly combined approaches a new path to knowledge, a
pluralistic culture that weaves together a dense plot of facts and
interpretations without the ideological burden of having to reduce
the ones to the others or vice versa.
For a comprehensive view on mirror neurons, visit the virtual
Originally published by Il Sole 24 Ore—Domenica [2.26.06]