What happens in society, stays in …the brain?

I finally had the chance to catch up on my reading this morning, and at the top of the list was this “We Aren’t the World” article. As Schaun pointed out in his last post, the basic narrative behind the piece (and a lot of the discussion around Henrich’s work) is that science is moving away from the view that humans have more or less universal cognitive faculties. This old view assumed everyone would respond similarly to basic stimuli. But then Henrich and others came along and showed that people respond differently to those stimuli. So now we know that cognition itself is shaped by “culture, environment, etc.” Continue reading


“Why Should We Believe You?” Anthropology and Public Interest

This month’s “From-the-Editor” article in American Anthropologist makes a commendable argument for moving AAA publications to a Gold open-access system. Public access and understanding seem to be key themes in anthropology communities recently. The editor puts it this way: “My first concern is that there is a fundamental contradiction between the oft-repeated goal of making anthropology more public and relevant on the one hand, and the lack of open access on the other.” “Public understanding” was what replaced “anthropology as science” in the AAA statement of purpose change in 2010 – a change that inspired extensive controversy. And while removing science stirred up a lot of criticism and disagreement, I don’t think there was very much concern with the addition of “public understanding”. Continue reading

On the virtues of deliberate inaction

I’ve thought a lot over the past few years about people’s aversion to “doing nothing,” specifically as the concept relates to thinking about, addressing, or planning for problematic social and political issues. The most recent incident that made me think of it was a discussion on LinkedIn where I commented:

I think the issues that genuinely compel explanation and action are very few and far between. We certainly feel like we need to do something about all of them, but we don’t really know that. In most cases, it seems the most appropriate response to a pressing issue that involves large populations would be to first admit that we haven’t got a clue about what is really influencing them, then take steps to systematically collect as much information about the actual behaviors as we can, and focus our efforts on preparing our own organizations/governments/societies for the event that the pressing issues will develop into something that directly impacts us.

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