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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Who's Afraid of the Third Culture?

Originally published in Il Sole 24 Ore, it is now featured on EDGE

(GLORIA ORIGGI:) It is remarkable that the discovery of a class of premotor neurons in the brain of macaque monkeys should seem to have important repercussions on our understanding the nature of human sociality. What does, after all, the activation of a cell of the nervous system of a monkey have to do with the intricacies of our social relations?

Beyond the fascinating arguments provoked by this discovery, this illustrates the changes that have taken place in the last twenty years in the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities, that is “the two cultures,” defined by C.P. Snow in his famous 1969 essay. Anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, disciplines that have based their autonomy on the claim that the system of social actions and human cultures is largely independent from their biological foundation, today make way for naturalistic research programs and the methods of the natural sciences.

So, is a third culture possible, as defined by John Brockman, in which the natural sciences take part in making sense of ourselves and our actions?

The investigation of the biological bases of moral sentiments, aesthetic judgment, interpretation of others, or religious beliefs still provokes frontal intellectual resistance in the name of an exception of human experience, which is historically situated and irreducible to natural constraints. More generally, a naturalistic approach is seen as deeply distorting the mission of the human and social sciences, which should aim at understanding how social-historical structures, power relationships, and cultural domination manifest themselves in human beings and shape their individual expressions. Therefore, there seems to exist an irresolvable tension between incompatible explanatory models. But is it really so?

Two main criticisms are addressed to the idea of a naturalistic research program in the human sciences. The first is the risk of reductionism, that is, the idea that complex social and personal experiences can be reduced to neurophysiological mechanisms. The second is that it suffers from anti-historicism, in the sense that it fails to provide historical contextualization or genealogical investigation, as though the forms of thought and the patterns of action that we seek to explain were immutable “natural types.” And indeed, in some cases, the reductionist and universalist speculations presented as grand claims of some of the exponents of the new naturalism can be irritating.

Consider for instance the project of neuroaesthetics: Vilayanur Ramachandran identifies ten universal “laws” of aesthetic experience, one of which says that neurological responses to “exaggerated” stimuli (such as an eye twice the size of a normal eye) are at the base of our aesthetic preferences (a neurological effect present also in mice called “peak shift”). The claim of having replaced the “vague speculations of historians” by scientific principles of aesthetic evaluation seems rather grand. The study of the psychological response to works of art has, however, been undertaken by expert art historians such as David Freedberg, who, in his seminal work The Power of Images sought to understand the universal psychological and anthropological constraints on human responses to images. There is nothing reductionist or anti-historical in Freedberg’s approach; he is just attempting to improve our understanding by drawing on the resources of the natural sciences.

Incidentally, regarding anti-historicism, one could point out that most naturalistic approaches are also of a historical nature: evolutionary arguments, for instance, seek to explain a behavior or a present forma mentis in terms of the brain’s history of adaptation to ancestral conditions or of mechanisms of cultural evolution.

This is how the philosopher Daniel Dennett undertakes in his new book Breaking the Spell to outline a naturalistic explanation of religious beliefs in Darwinian terms. Dennett isolates the “germs” of religious belief in cognitive predispositions, such as that of interpreting phenomena in intentional terms and of seeking therefore agents responsible for notable events, or in the greater memorability of counterintuitive information of a kind abundant in religion.

Dennett brings together speculations on the idea of group selection, on the evolution of religious institutions, and on the selection over time of sets of beliefs based on authority and immune to proof. Here too, Dennett’s total confidence in a Darwinian approach to religion may be seen as irritatingly premature. However, even if Dennett’s all-encompassing evolutionistic teleology may look like a form of religious creed, this does not mean that looking at religion with the help of natural sciences is a misguided project.

One need only turn directly to the anthropological works from which Dennett draws partial inspiration to find studies, like that of Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust. Atran balances evolutionary arguments, ecological and anthropological observations, and psychological experiments in order to reconstruct the “ecological landscape” in which a system of beliefs evolves and persists. He explains the difference between animistic, pantheistic, and monotheistic religions in terms of the psychological “distance” between the images that different human groups have of their biological environment and of society: where representations of nature and of society tend to merge (as in totemic societies), we find animistic religions. The greater the distance between these representations, the more people tend towards monotheistic systems. Atran’s work provides an example of a perspective that, without being reductionist or anti-historicist, draws on the natural sciences in its explanation of a religious phenomenon.

Thus, the third culture can be seen as a multidimensional culture, where explanations originating in different disciplines combine together without cancelling one another. As yet another example, one might think of Jon Elster’s work on emotions in his book The Alchemies of the Mind, in which neurobiology, literature, and rational choice theory come together as vectors of a causative and conceptual explanation of what is involved in feeling emotion.

Is then a third culture possible? There is a strong temptation to see in these smoothly combined approaches a new path to knowledge, a pluralistic culture that weaves together a dense plot of facts and interpretations without the ideological burden of having to reduce the ones to the others or vice versa.

(* For a comprehensive view on mirror neurons, visit the virtual conference:

(translated from Italian by Carrie Keesling-Getz)

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