Why a deep understanding of cultural evolution is incompatible with shallow psychology

Human, cognition, interaction, and culture are thoroughly intertwined. Without cognition and interaction, there would be no culture. Without culture, cognition and interaction would be very different affairs, as they are among other social species. The effect of culture on mental life has always been a main concern of the social sciences and, after a long period of almost total neglect, it is more and more taken into consideration in cognitive psychology. The effect of cognition, and in particular of the ability to attribute mental states to others, on interaction has become a important topic of investigation in developmental and social psychology. Little attention, on the other hand, is paid to the effect of cognition on culture. All would agree, of course that the human mind is what makes human culture possible. Quite generally, however, the mind is seen as a mere enabler of culture, a pure opportunity with no constraints attached, nothing that might contribute to shaping, or at least to biasing cultural contents. Against this neglect of cognition, I will argue that understanding the mind is doubly important to the study of culture. Psychological considerations are crucial both to a proper characterization of what is cultural and to a proper explanation of cultural phenomena. Most anthropologists may be too savvy to still talk of the mind as a “blank slate”, but they too often meet any discussion of psychological factors in culture with a blank stare. Most evolutionary theorists who see cultural evolution as an analogue of biological evolution by natural selection postulate rather than investigate the few particulars of the human mind..
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