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.