Tag Archives: anthropology

Language’s Influence on Culture

I’ve writ­ten before about Lera Borod­it­sky’s fas­cin­at­ing research into how lan­guage affects think­ing, and a recent art­icle by Borod­it­sky in The Wall Street Journ­al cov­ers sim­il­ar ground, ask­ing Does lan­guage influ­ence cul­ture?

The answer, it seems, is yes:

  • Rus­si­an speak­ers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are bet­ter able to visu­ally dis­crim­in­ate shades of blue.
  • Some indi­gen­ous tribes say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right, and as a con­sequence have great spa­tial ori­ent­a­tion.
  • The Piraha, whose lan­guage eschews num­ber words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quant­it­ies.
  • In one study, Span­ish and Japan­ese speak­ers could­n’t remem­ber the agents of acci­dent­al events as adeptly as Eng­lish speak­ers could. Why? In Span­ish and Japan­ese, the agent of caus­al­ity is dropped: [“The vase broke” or “The vase was broken”], rather than “John broke the vase.”

For some amaz­ing examples of these traits in prac­tice, the art­icle describes many stud­ies Borod­it­sky and her col­leagues con­duc­ted that will make you rethink how much of our cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences may be down to our dif­fer­ent lan­guages.

The World as the Extended Mind

That the tools and tech­no­lo­gies we use act as exten­sions to our brains is noth­ing new: this is the exten­ded mind the­ory. Indeed, last year I poin­ted to Carl Zim­mer arguing that Google–and thus the Inter­net as a whole–was an exten­ded mind.

How­ever, Scott Adams’ take on the ‘exo­brain’ is sim­ul­tan­eously the most con­cise and com­pre­hens­ive I’ve seen:

I’m fas­cin­ated by the phe­nomen­on of manip­u­lat­ing our envir­on­ment to extend our brains. I sup­pose it all star­ted with early humans carving on cave walls as a way to store his­tor­ic­al data. Now we have ebooks, com­puters, and cell phones to store our memor­ies. […] Even a house is a device for stor­ing data. Spe­cific­ally, a house stores data on how it was built. A skilled build­er can study a house and build anoth­er just like it.

Everything we cre­ate becomes a de facto data stor­age device and brain access­ory. A wall can be a phys­ic­al stor­age device for land sur­vey data, it can be a remind­er of his­tory, and it can be a trig­ger of per­son­al memor­ies.

A busi­ness is also a way to store data. As a res­taur­ant own­er, I was fas­cin­ated at how employ­ees came and went, but their best ideas often stayed with the busi­ness, espe­cially in the kit­chen. The res­taur­ant was like a giant data fil­ter. The bad ideas were tested and deleted while the good ideas stayed, most often without being writ­ten down. […]

I sup­pose oth­er creatures use their envir­on­ment for stor­ing inform­a­tion, or pro­gram­ming their brains in lim­ited ways. But I assume humans export the highest per­cent­age of brain func­tion to their envir­on­ment, and it grows daily. […] Humans are turn­ing the entire plan­et into an exo­brain. Our brains can­’t hold all of the data we pro­duce, so we look for ways to off­load to books, web­sites, music, and archi­tec­ture, to name a few stor­age devices. And we manip­u­late the envir­on­ment to repro­gram our brains as needed.

via The Browser and Kot­tke

Why Preserve Endangered Languages?

With his book on “the polit­ics of lan­guage” due to be pub­lished next year, inter­na­tion­al cor­res­pond­ent for The Eco­nom­ist, Robert Lane Green, is inter­viewed in More Intel­li­gent Life.

The dis­cus­sion I find most intriguing is this on the sav­ing of threatened world lan­guages:

Half of today’s lan­guages may be gone in a cen­tury. Is there a book that explains why we should care?

Unfor­tu­nately, I’ve tried and failed to find a util­it­ari­an argu­ment for pre­serving tiny lan­guages. Daniel Nettle and Suz­anne Romaine failed to con­vince me with “Vanishing Voices”, which tied biod­iversity to the pre­ser­va­tion of endangered lan­guages. They’re right in that small groups that speak threatened lan­guages often know things about plant and anim­al spe­cies that are lost when their lands are “developed” and they are absorbed into the lar­ger com­munity. But that know­ledge isn’t lost because the lan­guage is lost. It’s lost because the way of life is lost. If a mod­est tribe moved to the city and took urb­an jobs, their know­ledge of rare plants and so on would dis­ap­pear even if they kept their lan­guage. By con­trast, if their tra­di­tion­al way of life were pre­served, they could start speak­ing the big­ger met­ro­pol­it­an lan­guage and keep their know­ledge. (Con­trary to a com­mon belief, most things are per­fectly trans­lat­able.)

So the reas­on to keep lan­guages alive is really just because they are an irre­place­able part of our com­mon human her­it­age. […] The thought of a plan­et a thou­sand years from now where every­one speaks just a few lan­guages, or just one, depresses me

How Different Cultures Define Choice

In her book The Art of Choos­ing, psy­cho­lo­gist Sheena Iyengar—the exper­i­menter who con­duc­ted the ori­gin­al stud­ies lead­ing to the para­dox of choice the­ory—looks at the cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences in the defin­i­tion and accept­ance of choice.

Take a mundane ques­tion: Do you choose to brush your teeth in the morn­ing? Or do you just do it? Can a habit or cus­tom be a choice? When Iyengar asked Japan­ese and Amer­ic­an col­lege stu­dents in Kyoto to record all the choices they made in a day, the Amer­ic­ans included things like brush­ing their teeth and hit­ting the snooze but­ton. The Japan­ese did­n’t con­sider those actions to be choices. The two groups lived sim­il­ar lives. But they defined them dif­fer­ently.

In a review of the book, Iyengar is quoted as say­ing “the optim­al amount of choice lies some­where in between infin­ity and very little, and that optim­um depends on con­text and cul­ture”. I’ve pos­ted before on how we may be over­es­tim­at­ing the para­dox of choice the­ory.

via Mind Hacks

Religion and Societal Dysfunction

Dys­func­tion­al soci­et­ies and those under extreme stress rely on reli­gion as a cop­ing mech­an­ism; it is “a nat­ur­al inven­tion of human minds in response to a defect­ive hab­it­at”.

This is one con­clu­sion from Gregory Paul who has released the find­ings from his research on the incid­ence of reli­gious belief and how it affects the over­all ‘health’ of a soci­ety.

[Paul’s] earli­er, 2005, research […] showed strong pos­it­ive cor­rel­a­tions between nations’ reli­gious belief and levels of murder, teen­age preg­nancy, drug abuse and oth­er indic­at­ors of dys­func­tion. It seemed to show, at the very least, that being reli­gious does not neces­sar­ily make for a bet­ter soci­ety. […]

In this latest research Paul meas­ures “pop­u­lar reli­gi­os­ity” for developed nations, and then com­pares it against the “suc­cess­ful soci­et­ies scale” (SSS) which includes such things such as hom­icides, the pro­por­tion of people incar­cer­ated, infant mor­tal­ity, sexu­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases, teen­age births and abor­tions, cor­rup­tion, income inequal­ity, and many oth­ers. In oth­er words it is a way of sum­ming up a soci­ety’s health.

The res­ults?

The 1st world nations with the highest levels of belief in God, and the greatest reli­gious observ­ance are also the ones with all the signs of soci­et­al dys­func­tion. These cor­rel­a­tions are truly stun­ning. They are not “barely sig­ni­fic­ant” or mar­gin­al in any way. Many, such as those between pop­u­lar reli­gi­os­ity and teen­age abor­tions and STDs have cor­rel­a­tion coef­fi­cients over 0.9 and the over­all cor­rel­a­tion with the SSS is 0.7 with the US included and 0.5 without. These are power­ful rela­tion­ships.

As always.

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuck­er­man wrote the essay Why the Gods are Not Win­ning for Edge.