Functionally complex

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Theological Incorrectness by Jason Slone is a pretty slim and insubstantial book, but, it has a great chapter that comes close to parodying the “discourse” in modern cultural anthropology. I am interested in anthropology and comparisons between cultures. Myself, I personally span two cultures,1 and feel somewhat an alien in both. Because of my perspective there is one trend in modern cultural anthropology, and to some extent the “multiculturalist” zeitgeist, that I have found profoundly alien, and that is to view culture as something out there that has almost divine power to shape and distort our perception and experience of the world around us. To be succinct, many who are influenced by a “Culturalist” mode of thinking seem to conceive of the world like so:

Culture (individual) = suite of behaviors and perceptions

That is, culture operates like a function upon the individual and spits out a particular range or likelihood of behaviors and modifies and shapes one’s understanding of reality. This is taken to its extremes in claims of cultural relatively, in a denial that humans across societies have some basal fundamental feelings, yearnings and priorities. In other words, it is the idea that norms and personalities are arbitrary complexes shaped purely by cultural inputs. Being a divine essence which pervades the universe the new Culturalism denies intelligibility across peoples, it argues that relativism must reign supreme because each Culture has its own independent set of norms, inviolate axioms which lay are the foundations of individual worldviews. Warped by their cultural filter humans can not “step out” and view the world from the without and model it as a dynamic system which can be characterized by general patterns, trends and laws.

I won’t belabor my point, most of you know what I am getting at. Slone suggests that the “thick description” and anti-generalist discourse & critique in modern anthropology is a path to nowhere, a dead end. Anthropologists like Scott Atran have plainly called bullshit on the tendency to claim that each culture exists as a distinct set of norms and values only intelligible from the “inside,” as the anthropologists who are making the assertion themselves are on the “outside” but making knowledge claims, and often in their everyday conversation belie their contention of the reality of outsider-ignorance.

It seems a trivial assertion to contend that culture exists within the minds of humans and throughout the course of their interactions. Since humans exist in this world there are obvious constraints and probabilistic paths of cultural evolution and selection. Intelligibility is a given because we are all humans. Clarity is not guaranteed, and misunderstanding is common. When the vessels of the Chinese Muslim explorer Zheng He visited the Malabar coast of southern India they characterized the Hindus as Buddhists (idolaters). When Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut nearly a century later he doffed his cap to some Brahmin priests he saw on the promenade, taking them for Roman Catholic clerics. Hindus are neither Buddhists nor Catholics, both groups who came from the outside saw what they were conditioned to see by their own experience of the world and the categories with which they were familiar, but, it is understandeable why they made the mistakes they did. These sort of confusions, ubiquitous as they are, make cross-cultural communication as impossible as male-female relationships (don’t finish that thought!). In other words, necessary and doable, if not always easy.

Culture is an amorphous mess, and its constituent parts influence each other, as do the people who channel ideas and motifs. I have spoken of the fact that I believe that the God of the philosophers and the God of the people are two different entities, just as some Gnostics asserted that the God of the Hebrew Bible and the God of the New Testament were different entities. In this case, variation within the human mind results in different outputs from the same putative inputs. Or, consider the Protestant Christianity of South Korea and that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Both these regions have been Christianized only within the past few generations from northern European cultural sources, but the forms that the faith has taken differs radically. My exploration of the scene of Protestant Korean Christianity suggests that it is taking a course not dissimilar from that of European Christianity, developing a sophisticated liberal modernist theology at sharp variance with the orthodox conservative substrate. One strand of Korean Christianity is highly rational, systematic and philosophical, even if the majority of it reflects a shamanistic sensibility in the power of God to offer favor to his believers or an Old Time fundamentalist literalism. I do not know of similar developments in Africa even though the religious scene is just as vibrant (in fact more so, half of Koreans lack religious affiliation and a large minority are atheists). The point is that the different cultures had their own biases and simply refashioned a set of beliefs and norms which were transmitted to them from Europeans. This is why I tire of heuristics such as “Christianity implies….” One can speak to creedal confessions, but as to whether Christianity accepts polygyny, prosperity theology or ancestor worship is culturally conditioned. Humans aren’t robots who are preprogrammed with hard-coded lines of C without flexible conditionals.

On another forum I got into a long dispute with someone who was expressed a Culturalist perspective. Ultimately we kept talking past each other until he asked me whether I thought that a Chinese peasant and a European peasant would have the same cognitive states. His contention was that “forward thinking” Christianity was critical to breaking out of the normative “cyclical” mode of cosmology that dominated the pagan mentality. I think the problem here is that most humans can barely define the difference between a circle and a line, let along allow the implications of linear eschatologies to percolate into their minds. I get tired of the stories about how culture A makes people behave in way X because you can tell almost any story with the enormous sample space of data you have. I know because I do know enough factual tidbits that I could dishonestly abduce all sorts of rubbish which I have no faith in simply by biasing the data set.

But do cognitive differences exist? Yes, I suspect so. But need we to get off our asses, and stop pretending like what we think we know is sufficient to model the world as it is.

Consider this paper (PDF):

This study examined the emergence of cultural self-constructs as reflected in children’s remembered and conceptual aspects of self. European American and Chinese children in preschool through 2nd grade participated (N = 180). Children each recounted 4 autobiographical events and described themeslves in response open-ended questions. American children often provided elaborate and detailed memories focusing on their own roles, preferences, and feelings; they also frequently described themsleves in terms of personal attributes, abstract dispositions, and inner traits in a positive light. Chinese children provided relatively skeletal accounts of past experiences that centered on social interactions and daily routes, and they often described themselves in terms of social roles, context-specific characteristics, and overt behaviors in a neutral or modest tone….

The findings aren’t too surprising, but read the whole paper, some of the results conflicted with the researcher’s a priori expectations based on their model of cultural differences. That’s why they did the research!

About 6 months ago I asked Chris of Mixing Memory about cognitive psychological studies which examined how believers in different religions conceived of the world around them, how they reacted to a range of inputs, etc. Chris didn’t know of any such studies. My knowledge of the literature suggests that cognitive scientists are spending a lot of time understsanding the universal basal aspects of religious belief, as opposed to the cross-cultural variation and possible deep differences in perception and reaction to the world based on the religious ideology they profess to follow. My hunch is that controlling for variables the impact of religious ideology is less than one would think. That is, religious views and interpretations are driven forward by cultural assumptions and currents, they do not hold culture and individual on a tight leash. To be specific and frank, the savagery of Islam today is a function of the savagery of the cultures that espouse Islam, not the religion itself (and there was a time when Islam was an exemplar of civilized cosmopolitanism). Did Islam have a role independently in the current state of the Muslim world? Perhaps. But the current models bandied about in the public forum are far too glib and skeletal for my taste. Since I’ve come close to espousing nominalism in terms of what the religious labels mean substantively I’ll stop there, because I’ve come close to saying something about nothing.

Suppositions need to be tested. My patience is running thin on bullshit derived from reading The Jerusalem Post and two Bernard Lewis books (if you know considerably more than me about an aspect of history which I’m enthusiastic about I’ll be sure to be wowed of course!). I nearly shut down the blog in disgust after Matt McIntosh’s post (and one GNXP contributor had their account deleted and I sent out some nasty emails to people I don’t normally pick fights with).

I recall watching a documentary about the Ottoman Empire once. There was one montage where janissaries were drumming on the war march. There is something hypnotic about battle music, thousands of men marching in tandem to kill other humans, emotionally driven to irrational self-sacrifice and putting their own existence in jeopardy. The reptilian brain is a persistent seductress. Whatever general intelligence humans have, that does not imply that our rationality is not easy to scratch off given the appropriate teases. I see us standing at the apex of a steep ridge, and the snake is whispering in our ears to dash left or right. To one side are the howlers of the one true faith, those who know the truth and live for the acclaim of their fellows, who thrive on boiling blood and the exultation of rhetorically slippery point after point sliding under the armor. To the other side are thriving legions drunk on the delusions of their own solipsistic dreams, follies and fantasies. They have abandoned the quest in favor of indulgences and personal gratification. Shall we join the battle? Not yet. We may broker a less costly peace if God is on our side. But if you want to prepare your armor for battle, be my guest, leave us, but the hill is steep, I don’t expect to see you back.

1 – The span is not symmetric. My Bengali aspects are accidents.


  1. Culture (individual) = suite of behaviors and perceptions 
    Ha, if it were this way, what to make of individuals who would “crash” the culture box and thus be excluded from the domain? They would seek out a culture more agreeable to their talents & temperaments, which reverses the Culturalist’s assignment of roles of function and argument. 
    cognitive scientists are spending a lot of time understsanding the universal basal aspects of religious belief, as opposed to the cross-cultural variation 
    Right, that would require talking about psychological group differences. Cognitive psychologists are fine w/ universals and individual differences, but not group differences. Psychometricians talk abt group differences, but usually restricted to IQ or Big Five personality traits. 
    My hunch is that you’re right that group differences in religious beliefs are more a reflection of co-opting existing cognitive & personality biases, rather than the Baldwin Effect increasingly hard-wiring them in. The BE works best & fastest when the selection pressure is strong, like pathogens, and it’s hard to imagine religious beliefs reflecting ambient pathogen load: e.g., you’d expect some kind of ritual purification based only on disgust mechanisms, regardless of whatever role religious thought had. 
    Now, group differences in mating psychology I’d ascribe by default to the BE mostly hard-wiring them in response to pathogens. So, where do the most peacock-ish males hail from? The least? How about the most vs the least sexually flirtatious females? Etc.

  2. The BE works best & fastest when the selection pressure is strong 
    re: mating, well…what about if group conformity increases your fitness, and fitness is proportional to your comfort with the modal cognitive state. by this, imagine group A has a ritualized religious system, while group B has a more charismatic free form system. what if you comfort level, due to innnate personality biases, has a strong effect on mate choice? 
    i’m skeptical though because how persistent would such group dynamics be? history teaches that religious systems go through flux VERY quickly….

  3. Despite the fact that religion may not in and of itself completely control human behavior, it would be absurd to say that religion has no role in human thinking and behavior. Yes, people from different cultural backgrounds may interpret a religion differently, but certainly their religion has some impact on their lives. 
    To use a mathematical analogy, religion is one of the many matrices through which our thoughts are shaped. Sure, a Chinese christian will be hugely different from a European christian, but a Chinese christian will still be different from, say, a Chinese buddhist.

  4. I have read that Bengalis are blind to the whole concept of culture, and that even after many years of education they’re still unable to understand basic cultural concepts.

  5. One way this has been understood in history is something like the way geneticists talk about knockout genes. For example, in a few generations (3 or 4) American Puritanism evolved from an austere, fearful religion to a rather complacent, materialist one. People who look at Puritan doctrine closely can see that only a very few switches had to be flipped in order to make that happen: a reinterpretation of “election”, the notion of the “visible signs of grace” (= wealth), etc. Very different results were achieved with relatively minimal change in the formal belief system.  
    In Spain when Franco’s system was replaced you also had some enormous changes in behavior with regard to sex and marriage. In Spain intense eroticism had always been kept under minimal control by the power of the Church and close control of young women, but when the church lost its grip the eroticism remained. 
    The modernization of Japan after 1850 would be another case. The Japoanese are just as Japanese as ever, but much different. 
    I’m not an expert on any of these transitions, but an examination of dramatic historical changes can be a kind of laboratory of culture. (Anthropologists cheat by gravitating toward historically-static societies, and also by claiming that they are more static than they really are).

  6. To use a mathematical analogy, religion is one of the many matrices through which our thoughts are shaped. Sure, a Chinese christian will be hugely different from a European christian, but a Chinese christian will still be different from, say, a Chinese buddhist. 
    that is qualitative wiggling. if your going to use a mathematical analogy you should venture some proportionality. so, questions 
    a) will the vector ‘chinese christian’ share a greater component with ‘european christian’ than with ‘chinese buddhist’? 
    b) will a ‘chinese christian’ exhibit a component that alters its vector vis-a-vi a ‘chinese buddhist’ that is not shared with a european christian’ because of sampling bias in conversion from the sample ‘chinese buddhists’? 
    i would say that the shared component in a) is minimal, and smaller in magnitude than b). to give you a specific example, a disproportionate number of the “christians” who participated in the taiping rebellion were marginalized hakkas. they were surely different in many ways from the run-of-the-mill chinese peasant, but, if you study the theology promoted by the rebels you will see that they deviated sharply from christianity very quickly, and it could be argued that their religious ideology was only superficially christian. someone with a shallow knowledge of the topic could be liable to say, “oh yes, monotheistic fanaticism warped their mentality, and now they are behaving like intolerant monotheists now that they have read the evil book of the monotheists.” this would be a nice little abduction, but a more parsimonious one might be that the taiping rebels were following a long chinese tradition of local rebellions rooted in religious going back to the yellow turbans. and their differences from the typical chinese peasant in south-central china might be chalked up to the fact that they were disproportionately hakkas with no prospects (the leader failed his civil service examinations many times).

  7. One way this has been understood in history is something like the way geneticists talk about knockout genes. 
    interesting analogy. one thing that i think is important to keep in mind is that humans  
    a) have strong group conformist tendencies 
    b) tend to have bad memories about their past motivations and beliefs 
    a specific example is segregationism in the south. as i noted before studies by cognitive psychologists show that many white southerners changed their opinions re: race between 1970 and 1983, but dont’ remembering changing their opinions. the cultural zeitgeist “changed state,” something many people have observed and commented on, but you would be hard-pressed to find people who acknowledge the process by which this happened. politicians to some extent are exceptions because they were in the public eye and can’t deny their past views…but even hear i tend to find that southern white politicos offer very truncated narratives. one might assume they are being evasive, but after reading some cog. psych. of memory i am wondering if perhaps this is just normal, they really don’t remember how they got from a -> z, and their main problem is they can’t just fabulize and pretend like a -> z never happened because they are on the record about their segregationism in the past (for example, i recall strom thurmond confronted about this topic by MTV vjay bill bellamy about this pro-segregationist campaign circa 1948. at the time i assumed that thurmond’s rather skeletal response was evasion or senility, but now i’m not so sure)

  8. “To be specific and frank, the savagery of Islam today is a function of the savagery of the cultures that espouse Islam, not the religion itself (and there was a time when Islam was an exemplar of civilized cosmopolitanism).” 
    I’ve heard stuff about how Christianity emphasizes compassion and forgiveness more than Islam, but I don’t they stopped burning heretics at the stake in Spain and Portugal until that late 1800′s.

  9. but I don’t they stopped burning heretics at the stake in Spain and Portugal until that late 1800′s. 
    i doubt that. there weren’t any heretics to burn :) also, the body count for roman catholicism in the iberian peninsula is a little lower than you might think, in part because of the factor i allude to above. unlike many other regions of europe large religious minorities did not exist (at least after the expulsion of unconverted crypto-muslims after 1600). the last execution for heresy in the british isles was around 1700, in scotland (the heresy was atheism, which the individual recanted before his beheading).

  10. So you argue christianity on the basis of science? That’s intelligent…Satan created science, therefore any information you get from science is biased.

  11. Many Chinese sects adopted Jesus and some Bible texts and legends (along with Mohammed, Buddha, and others) into their pantheon without abandoning all of their other beliefs and without conforming to any European form of Christianity.  
    Much of popular Chinese religion isn’t derived from Taoism, Confucianism, or Buddhism, but isn’t independent of them either. It’s highly eclectic with a lot of substrate.

  12. “i doubt that. there weren’t any heretics to burn” 
    This page mentions a Jew being killed in 1826: 
    Who knows how accurate that is. I remember reading something about a school master being hung around the year 1900 for some offense at his school – saying the wrong thing or something. Neverthless, it does seem that Spain was very hardline in its Catholicism for longer than other Catholic countries and what changed the thinking may have been secular developments and their influence on Catholic doctrine – things like religious freedom, and primacy of conscience – the sorts of doctrine that appear to have their origins in secular moral and legal thought and that were perhaps necessary to make the Catholic Church more compatible with the modern world.