“Culture and genes interact since millions of years”, Gerhard Lauer


Gerhard Lauer foi um dos convidados do encontro ‘Matters of Culture’, onde falou da relação entre cultura e cognição, no dia 9 de Fevereiro de 2016, texto que a seguir se transcreve.
1. The common notion in many if not most parts of the humanities claims a non relation between culture and cognition. Whatever culture is, culture is not affected by cognition. To know something about cognition elucidates nothing about culture, so they say. Hence, for cultural studies any findings of cognitive psychology or neuroscience, from social psychology or even from science of reading are of no relevance for cultural studies. The realm of biological evolution seems to stop when culture came into play. Insights from areas of biological research are simply a naturalistic fallacy and any kind of cognitive literary studies is a neodarwinistic shortening of what cultural studies should do. “Essentialism” is the catchword to reject any approach to integrate culture and cognition into the humanities.

2. In the tradition of German academia the opposition of culture and cognition is mapped by the contrast of nomothetic natural sciences vs. ‘verstehende Geisteswissenschaften’ (hermeneutical humanities). Dilthey concept of ‘Geisteswissenschaft’ ignores by purpose and theory early empirical psychology as well as phenomenology and other more or less scientific approaches on cognition of his time, and stated, that both areas are divided by an insurmountable gap of methodological differences. From then to now only little attempts were made by groups like Russian Formalism or Structuralism to question the thesis of the non-scientific nature of cultural studies.

3. Against dominant theories cognitive approaches in the humanities suggest a different concept of the relation between culture and cognition. In this perspective culture is part of the biological evolution. More precisely culture and genes interact since millions of years, and the culture-gene coevolution has not yet ended. Humans are a cultural species and our cognition arises from the synthesis of our cultural and social natures, from the very fact that we readily learn from others and live in interconnected groups, which differs more in forms of social and cultural organizations than the rest of the primate order combined. Culture and cognition made each other up and cultural explanations become but one type of evolutionary explanation. Since evolution drives groups of primates to develop bigger brain culture is a necessary function to make use of big brains. Human cognition is social cognition since millions of years. In this framework the study of culture and the study of cognition are two sides of the same coin.

4. If humans are a cultural species, then one of the most crucial adaptation is humans ability to keenly observe and learn from other people, mostly from the more prestigious and skilled, with biased to co-ethnics, co-language, and co-sexes. Humans can interfere conspecific’s acts, and intentions, beliefs, and strategies. This is variously termed mentalizing, or theory of mind. Human cognition differs systematically from other primates. As culture become the primary driver of our species genetic evolution (some 2 million years ago) cognition was changed to improve social learning and cultural intelligence. We use more energy for cognition than other species, the myelination makes human brain more efficient and is developed later in infancy to make children’s brain more plastic, and human neocortex sends corticospinal connections deeper into the motor neurons, spinal cord, and brain stem than in other mammals. We can better run and throw and even these neurological changes alter cognition and enable us to become a cultural species. By cooking, or the ability to change the colour of skin and of eyes, to change to lactase persistence etc. it has been consistently shown how culture can be among the most powerful selections pressures created in nature. The cooking-and-fire revolution, the projectile-weapons revolution, the spoken-language revolution, the agricultural revolution are among many others miles stones how culture drives cognition.

5. Languages are part of the cultural-gene coevolution. Language enables more complex cultural trajectories and at the same time culture can influence the size and complexity of communicative repertoires. Like whistle languages came up in steep mountain terrains, vocabulary sizes expand with size and structure of populations, languages with more speakers tend to have more sounds/phonems but shorter words, and sonority of languages changes with temperature, diverse acoustics environments prefer different types of language systems. As findings by cross-cultural psychology has shown language systems influence cognition in many ways. Most common is the difference between holistic vs. analytic thinking, between a more society-orientated thinking style in East Asian vs. a more individualism-oriented approach in Western cultures. Like languages, techniques, or rituals, also the arts differ according to the evolutionary driven interplay of cognition and culture. Learning to read changes the brain, basically by building a specific area, called letter box. Again culture alters cognition. We can trace the correlation of culture and cognition even in the structure of neurons. Culture matters and cognition too.

6. In this coevolutionary model one can understand culture not without understanding cognition, and human cognition would be an opaque riddle to be understood without understanding culture. In sum, cultural studies should think about, why not explore the correlation between culture and cognition more closely. Rewriting cultural theory as part of a larger history of human evolution is still a task.

Gerhard Lauer,February 2016

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