10 questions for Dan Sperber

Dan Sperber (you can read many of his publications at his website) is an anthropologist based in France, whose work , lays forth his ideas in regards to the “epidemiology of representations.”

1) If I recall correctly, you stated on an interview for EDGE that you became an anthropologist because of your confusion as to how people could be religious. Is this particular motivation common amongst anthropologists? In which case, it seems that France would have far fewer anthropologists than the United States!

I was brought up as an atheist but with respect for my Rabbinic ancestors and for religious thinkers of any persuasion more generally. The tension between these two attitudes was one of the causes of my becoming an anthropologist. People become anthropologists for a variety of reasons. I like the old line (I don’t know where I first heard it) that you have to be unhappy with yourself to become a (clinical) psychologist, unhappy with your society to become a sociologist, and unhappy with both to become an anthropologist. Be that as it may, I would be surprised if the number of anthropologists relative to the whole population were much different in France and in the US.

2) In you thanked John Tooby and Leda Cosmides for having inspired you somewhat in the direction you took. In by David Buller you are part of the prosecution against the Wason Selection Task as evidence for a ‘cheating detection’ innate facility. You have also defended ‘massive modularity.’ How would you characterize your own position in the alphabet soup of Evolutionary Psychologists, Behavorial Ecologists and assorted thinkers?

I always took for granted that an evolutionary perspective on mind and culture was correct, but it is Cosmides and Tooby who helped me realize that if was also potentially a very fruitful perspective. Even if I don’t care much about labels, I consider myself an evolutionary psychologist (part time; my main interest is in the epidemiology of representations, which draws on evolutionary psychology and other approaches). I agree on many essential points with Tooby and Cosmides, in particular the general idea – not necessarily the details – of massive modularity (I believe, actually, I was the first to use “massive” to describe modularity), but there are points of diagreement too. Among them there is a serious but also very local disagreement regarding their use of the selection task to test their hypothesis regarding the existence of a “social contract Darwinian algorithm.” It is an interesting and plausible hypothesis, but I believe that, in spite of all the work done by them and their collaborators, it has not been seriously tested so far because most of their evidence comes from the selection task, which, I have argued (in collaboration with Vittorio Girotto and others) is not a good test to study this or any form of human reasoning.

3) When I discuss with those with anthropological backgrounds the ideas I have encountered in your books () and papers, or Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran’s books and papers, they seem confused and have little understanding of what I speak. Is your naturalistic paradigm more common among anthropologists in Europe than in the United States?

No, our common perspective (well illustrated also in the work of a few others, in particular Lawrence Hirschfeld – the four of us used to meet and discuss at my home in Paris in the early eighties) is still very much a minority view among anthropologists everywhere, as are all Darwinian views. On the other hand, I believe that our approach addresses maybe better and cetainly in greater detail than most other Darwinian approaches many legitimate concerns of people with a serious anthropological and ethnographic background.

4) In Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd refer to your work, positively. How do you feel about their project? Are they complementary, or addressing wholly different aspects of culture?

I have come to appreciate more and more the work of Boyd, Richerson, and their collaborators (in particular Joe Henrich). I believe our approaches are generally compatible, and our partly different focuses complementary.

5) It is often said that English is the language of science. How true does this seem in France? I notice that most of your work is available in English (or at least the work I know of!).

English is indeed the language of science. I don’t know whether native English speakers who don’t have to learn another tongue the way we do should be envied or pitied for that. As for my own work, most of it is written in English, or, when first written in French, translated into English.

6) Tooby and Cosmides tend to focus on the “psychic unity of mankind.” They argue that salient psychological characteristics must be monomorphic in our species because the tightly contingent nature of the organ would make polymorphism a suboptimal genetic architecture in relation to fitness, as recombination would destroy favorable genotypes. Other thinkers seem to lean toward an insertion of individual conditional (facultative) strategies as well as a mix of fixed evolutionarily stable strategies, taking a cue from the late J. M. Smith’s “hawk vs. dove” models. Where do you stand on this topic?

I don’t see these two approaches as incompatible. I do see insistance on the “psychic unity of humankind” and a focus on what humans have in common, including ranges of alternative strategies within populations, as essential both to the fruitful pursuit of an evolutionary approach to mind and culture, and to its acceptability in the broader scientific community. Would-be-scientific racism – which is still alive – has not contributed anything of genuine scientific value but has had the worse effect on the image of biological approaches to human affairs. So, I see it as both scientifically sound and responsible to starkly dissociate what we do from programmes that try to explain social and cultural differences among populations on the basis of biological differences.

7) Your work strikes me as rather pandisciplinary, and far more philosophical than much of what I am conditioned to expect from an anthropologist. Is this a function of your intellectual track, or a general cultural difference in how social scientists are trained in the Anglophone vs. Francophone worlds?

I was trained both in France and in Britain, and I have also learned a lot while being a visiting academic in the States. The specific mix of competencies and interests that you find in my work is an effect of my unquenchable curiosity and of the varied opportunities I have had to try and satisfy it.

8) was an anthology of your works, and I do not get the sense that it was directed toward a general audience. Can we expect a popular audience targeted
book for the English speaking market (it seems that Richerson and Boyd’s was just that)?

What I want to write is one or several books that will present the general picture I have in mind and of which I have so far aimed different fragments at different specialised audiences. The result should be more comprehensive, and I will try my best to make it easier than what I have written so far, but I am not sure my best will be good enough to appeal to a popular audience, however much I would like it to.

9) How do you view David Sloan Wilson’s arguments in regards to group selection and its role in fostering the evolution of altruism?

His contribution is well worth discussing, but I am not at all convinced by it, in particular because I believe that human cultures are far too labile to give much scope to cultural group selection (a point where I differ also from Boyd and Richerson).

10) If your parents hand emigrated to England, how do you think you would differ besides the obvious linguistic and culinary preferences and biases?

Sounds like you needed ten questions, and had only nine good ones. Seriously, I have no idea, and there are so many other things I would rather puzzle about.

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