Gloria Origgi [4.30.06]

So, 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?


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.

Origgi's essay was originally published in the "Scienza e Filosofia" section of the Italian newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore. (Click here for the PDF file.)


GLORIA ORIGGI is a philosopher and a researcher at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. Her areas of research are philosophy of mind, epistemology, and cognitive sciences applied to new technologies. She is based at the Ecole Nationale des Télécommunications. Origgi is the editor of the www.interdisciplines.org project, a portal for virtual conferences in social and cognitive sciences, and is the author of Text-E: Text in the Age of the Internet.

Gloria Origgi's Edge Bio Page


(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.

So, 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?

The investigation of the biological bases of moral sentiments, aesthetic judgment, interpretation of others, or religious beliefs still provokes frontal intellectual resistance in the name of an exception of human experience, which is historically situated and irreducible to natural constraints. More generally, a naturalistic approach is seen as deeply distorting the mission of the human and social sciences, which should aim at understanding how social-historical structures, power relationships, and cultural domination manifest themselves in human beings and shape their individual expressions. Therefore, there seems to exist an irresolvable tension between incompatible explanatory models. But is it really so?

Two main criticisms are addressed to the idea of a naturalistic research program in the human sciences. The first is the risk of reductionism, that is, the idea that complex social and personal experiences can be reduced to neurophysiological mechanisms. The second is that it suffers from anti-historicism, in the sense that it fails to provide historical contextualization or genealogical investigation, as though the forms of thought and the patterns of action that we seek to explain were immutable “natural types.” And indeed, in some cases, the reductionist and universalist speculations presented as grand claims of some of the exponents of the new naturalism can be irritating.

Consider 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.

Incidentally, regarding anti-historicism, one could point out that most naturalistic approaches are also of a historical nature: evolutionary arguments, for instance, seek to explain a behavior or a present forma mentis in terms of the brain’s history of adaptation to ancestral conditions or of mechanisms of cultural evolution.

This is how the philosopher Daniel Dennett undertakes in his new book Breaking the Spell to outline a naturalistic explanation of religious beliefs in Darwinian terms. Dennett isolates the “germs” of religious belief in cognitive predispositions, such as that of  interpreting phenomena in intentional terms and of seeking therefore agents responsible for notable events, or in the greater memorability of counterintuitive information  of a kind abundant in religion.

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.

One 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.

Thus, the third culture can be seen as a multidimensional culture, where explanations originating in different disciplines combine together without cancelling one another. As yet another example, one might think of Jon Elster’s work on emotions in his book The Alchemies of the Mind, in which neurobiology, literature, and rational choice theory come together as vectors of a causative and conceptual explanation of what is involved in feeling emotion.

Is 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 conference:www.interdisciplines.org/mirror.)

(translated from Italian by Carrie Keesling-Getz)

Originally published by Il Sole 24 Ore—Domenica [2.26.06]