Author Archives: mcelreath

Culture for Skeptics: Readings for Nov 3

Continuing from the lively discussion last week, we will finish discussing:

Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson. 2005. Solving the Puzzle of Human Cooperation, In: Evolution and Culture, S. Levinson ed. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, pp 105-132.
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I'm adding to this three VERY SHORT readings. The first two are a pair: a Science magazine paper and its accompanying (and politely critical) commentary. While Bowles argues for genetic group selection in humans, you'll see he might need cultural institutions of some kind to get there. You may be surprised that this paper actually examines some DATA.

Samuel Bowles. 2006. Group Competition, Reproductive Leveling, and the Evolution of Human Altruism. Science 314:1569.
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Robert Boyd. 2006. Perspectives: Evolution: The Puzzle of Human Sociality. Science 314:1555.
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The third is an Evolution commentary considering cultural group selection and the possibility that current human cooperation is something of a "stalled" evolutionary transition.

Stephen C. Stearns. 2007. Are We Stalled Part Way Through a Major Evolutionary Transition From Individual to Group? Evolution 61(10):2275-2280.
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Viva la selección de los grupos!

Culture for Skeptics: Readings for Oct 27

Can "culture" produce novel evolutionary processes and thereby explain the unusual pro-sociality of our species? If so, then evolutionary ecologists need to get cultural, just as much as cultural anthropologists need to get evolutionary.

There is a lot I could assign here. I've picked two readings. The first is a section of my book that attempts to teach the multilevel selection approach. The pages are small and the math takes up a lot of space, so there isn't so much to read here as you might think at first. I encourage you to SKIP THE MATHS (unless you want to work through it, of course).

Richard McElreath and Robert Boyd. 2007. Selection Among Groups. In R. McElreath and R. Boyd, Mathematical Models of Social Evolution: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp. 223-260. Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press.
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The second reading addresses human cooperation specifically, closing by explaining the hypothesis that "culture" makes group selection more likely for human societies.

Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson. 2005. Solving the Puzzle of Human Cooperation, In: Evolution and Culture, S. Levinson ed. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, pp 105-132.
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Culture for Skeptics: Readings for Oct 20

This week visits the primal debate about the role of language in shaping thought and different "cultural" worldviews. The classic citation for the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis first:

Benjamin Lee Whorf. 1941. The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language. In Language, Culture, and Personality: Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir.
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Next, two recent experimental studies of the interaction between linguistic differences and cognition. The first is brief but dense. The second is long but more sparse. Both produce experimental evidence of "Whorfian" cognition.

Daniel B. M. Haun, Christian J. Rapold, Josep Call, Gabriele Janzen, and Stephen C. Levinson. 2006. Cognitive cladistics and cultural override in Hominid spatial cognition. PNAS 103:17568 –17573.
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Silvia P. Gennari, Steven A. Sloman, Barbara C. Malt, and W. Tecumseh Fitch. 2002. Motion events in language and cognition. Cognition 83:49-79.
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Culture for Skeptics: Readings for Oct 6

Back to the tribe of science of this week. Here are two articles that orbit a debate about the role of innate cognitive structure in patterning "culture."

The first is an experimental and observational study of evidence for the view that our cognitive structure makes some ideas easier to remember than others, influencing the stability of alternative cultural forms.

Ara Norenzayan, Scott Atran, Jason Faulkner and Mark Schaller. 2006. Memory and Mystery: The Cultural Selection of Minimally Counterintuitive Narratives. Cognitive Science 30:531-553.
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The second is a numerical-philosophy (modeling) paper that argues that the existence of such cognitive structure does not obviate the need to understand and theorize about the more epidemiological aspects of "culture."

Joseph Henrich and Robert Boyd. 2002. On Modeling Cognition and Culture: Why cultural evolution does not require replication of representations. Journal of Cognition and Culture 2:87-112.
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Culture for Skeptics: Readings for September 22

There was some general vote for exploring the changes in hominin/ids that make "culture" stuff possible. So here are two quite different selections, and a short conference review.

The first is an evolutionary story by Merlin Donald, trying to understand the sequence of cognitive changes that lead to modern human "culture." It ranges all over, so have fun with it.

The second is a set of experimental studies aimed at decoding what exactly is different about human and other ape social learning. It's detailed experimental stuff, intended to give you an idea what the comparative psychology is telling us.

The third is a short Science review. You might read it first, to get an overview of current debates.

Donald, M. 1998. Hominid enculturation and cognitive evolution. In C. Renfrew, P. Mellars, & C. Scarre, eds. Cognition and Material Culture: the archaeology of external symbolic storage. Cambridge, U.K., The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 7-17.
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Horner, V. & Whiten, A. 2007. Learning from others' mistakes? Limits on Understanding a Trap-Tube Task by Young Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and Children (Homo sapiens). J. Comp. Psych. 121: 12-21.
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Balter, M. 2008. Human Evolution: Why We're Different: Probing the Gap between Apes and Humans. Science 319:404.
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Culture for Skeptics: Readings for September 15

This week, you'll look at critiques of "culture" that have come from within cultural anthropology. In a real sense, criticism and concern over the concept is old. But "Practice Theory" and other movements from outside anthropology have done a lot to bring the crisis to a head.

Here are two readings. The first is a review of critiques. It's the best overview I could find. The second is an oft-cited critique---it has become standard reading in probably a majority of graduate anthropology theory courses, as well as in feminist anthropology.

Robert Brightman. 1995. Forget Culture: Replacement, Transcendence, Relexification. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 10, pp. 509-546.
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Lila Abu-Lughod. 1991. "Writing against Culture." In R.G.Fox (ed.), Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present. Sante Fe: School of American Research Press.
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And here's a third (optional) reading, another oft-cited critique of "culture," just for the sake of giving you another entrance into the literature:

Eric R. Wolf. 1984. Culture: Panacea or Problem? American Antiquity, Vol. 49, pp. 393-400.
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Culture for Skeptics: Readings for Sept 8

Since my own camp will always be the elephant in the room, until we read about it straight on, I think we should just get it out of the way.

So here are two programmatic essays for the dual-inheritance or gene-culture coevolution approach to human behavior. The first is a very easy read, and is targeted mainly at cultural anthropologists. The second is a little thicker and targeted at evolutionarily-oriented social scientists, mostly.

Neither has math in it! I can assign an easy mathy dual-inheritance paper another week, if people are interested in seeing the guts of the operation.

(1) Durham, W.H. 2002. “Cultural variation in time and space: The case for a populational theory of culture.” Pages 193–206 in R.G. Fox and B.J. King, eds., Anthropology beyond Culture. Oxford: Berg.
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(2) Richerson, P.J. and R. Boyd. 2001. Culture is Part of Human Biology: Why the Superorganic Concept Serves the Human Sciences Badly. In Science Studies: Probing the Dynamics of Scientific Knowledge, edited by S. Maasen and M. Winterhager. Bielefeld: Verlag.
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Culture for Skeptics, Week 1 (Monday Aug 25 2008)

Borofsky, R., Barth, F., Shweder, R., Rodseth, L., & Stolzenberg, N. M. (2001). When: A conversation about culture. American Anthropologist, 103, 432-446.

ABSTRACT: For decades now culture has been a topic anthropologists argue about: WHAT it does or does not mean, IF it should or should not constitute a central concept of the discipline. This essay steps outside these arguments to rephrase the issue and our approach to it. It explores WHEN it makes sense to use the cultural concept: Should we proceed inductively or deductively in constructing connections between the concept and our data? And instead of assertions by one author, it utilizes a debate format to collectively raise possibilities to ponder.


Baryplot R package

Barycentric Coordinates

The triangular phase plots often seen in game theoretic publications (called ternary plots, de Finetti diagrams, simplex, etc.) are plots in barycentric coordinates. This coordinate system is handy, because it plots three components which sum to a constant. In game theory, the three things are three strategies, and their frequencies must sum to one.

Baryplot Library for R

R is an open source framework for doing and vizualizing statistics. It is a full-featured programming language, complete with vector-based drawing. I have written a library of functions that allows one to easily plot vector-based barycentric game theoretic plots. Since the resulting plots are vector-based, they can be scaled, edited, and printed with no loss of quality. And since it is all wrapped in R, complex games can be programmed and passed to the plots as parameters.

To use this library, first you will need to download and install R. R is freely available for Windows, Mac (OS 9 and OS X), and Linux.

Now execute the two lines below within R, to install the package from the internet:



Using baryplot

Once the library is installed, you load it by typing "library(baryplot)". You can get online help for its functions using "library( help=baryplot )". Use "?functionname" to get help on an individual function. For example, "?bary.sim".

The commands below produce the plot below.


Interactive plotting

Try typing...


...then click inside the triangle.

See the help for ("?" at the R prompt) for optional parameters it can take.

Plotting a new game

To plot a custom game, you just need to write a short function that returns payoffs for each of the three strategies. If you type "" at the R prompt, you'll see the code for the game that is plotted above:

function (p, q, r, v = 2, c = 3, w0 = 5)
w1 <- (p + q) * (v - c)/2 + r * v + w0
w2 <- p * (v - c)/2 + (1 - p) * v/2 + w0
w3 <- (1 - p) * v/2 + w0
c(w1, w2, w3)

p, q, and r are the frequencies of each strategy. The baryplot library provides those to this function. You just need to write the expressions that use those frequencies to compute fitness values w1, w2, and w3. Here's a template: <- function(p, q, r, w0 = 10) {
w1 <- p * 0 + q * 1 + r * (-1) + w0
w2 <- p * (-1) + q * 0 + r * 1 + w0
w3 <- p * 1 + q * (-1) + r * 0 + w0

If you paste that code into R, you can then plot the game by adding a parameter to the simulation call. See the help for bary.sim (type ?bary.sim) for details. The simplest call will look like: