How Shall We Repaint the Kitchen?

Ian Hacking

  • Cognitive Variations: Reflections on the Unity and Diversity of the Human Mind by G.E.R. Lloyd
    Oxford, 201 pp, £27.50, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 921461 7

We are creatures: therefore biological, but also social. How much of each of us is biological, how much social? Usually, the question is asked about individuals: how much of what you do is the working out of innate, inherited capacities, how much acquired from people around you? There is also a more communal question: how much of our social behaviour as a group – how we talk, how we love, how we argue, how we get angry – is peculiar to our local ways of living, and how much is determined by our shared animal nature? Geoffrey Lloyd’s book is the best recent overall summary of the state of play in the discussion of our social behaviour. The game? Nature v. nurture. That is a ‘convenient jingle of words’, as Francis Galton wrote in 1874, when he coined the dyad.

Nature is all that a man brings with himself into the world; nurture is every influence that affects him after his birth. The distinction is clear: the one produces the infant such as it actually is, including its latent faculties of growth and mind: the other affords the environment amid which the growth takes place, by which natural tendencies may be strengthened or thwarted or wholly new ones implanted.

Experts don’t like to use this language much any more, but Galton’s handy words allow us to stand back and get some perspective on debates that have been going on for a very long time, and thus to give some background to Lloyd’s scorecard. Nature and nurture are not exhaustive; indeed, the action is mostly at the interplay between the two. They should be regarded only as signposts. Moreover, you should not assume that nature gives what is universal in the human condition, while nurture produces all the variety. There is of course tremendous regional variety in peoples around the globe, and lots of cognitive variability within a single family; conversely, there may be many facts about the very possibility of human societies that make for the cultural universals urged by anthropologists as different as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mary Douglas.

Cultures – a word that has long been overused, and which I try to avoid – are entities that exist because children are nurtured into systems of practices and reactions that define the collective lives of individuals. Nurture, as Galton meant it, involves not only mother’s breast and knee: it is also on the street, it is TV. Galton, reviled as the founder of eugenics, had too much respect for nurture to hope to affect it much; better to try to reform nature by breeding. He knew, as Victorian gentlemen did, that breeding worked far better for dogs, say, than any amount of mere training of an arbitrary mongrel. (No, I am not a eugenicist, the very opposite; I am saying only that Galton had a good head.)

There has been something of a tug-of-war between anthropology, favouring nurture, and cognitive science, favouring nature. Galton, as an explorer in Africa and as a pioneer of heritability, practised both. Early in the last century, the anthropologists were on top. In the 1920s, Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead, reporting from the South Pacific, convinced the general English-reading public that human societies are very, very different; little of what we do, above the bare necessities of survival, is fixed by nature. We procreate using more or less the same biology everywhere, but the rituals with which we do it are exotically variable. The relativist doctrines of Mead were welcomed as part of the sexual liberation of the 1920s, but how many readers of the LRB feel liberated by learning the details of female circumcision?

In the same decade, Edward Sapir, analysing many North American languages, advanced the doctrine that a language reflects the way that its speakers understand the world – a way that may be incomprehensible without the language. Kant’s a prioris, structures of the human mind, were replaced by structures of local languages that most other humans would not be able to take in without sharing a life with the locals. Sapir, who came to America when young, still had the classic Germans before him; Alexander von Humboldt came more readily to his mind than John Locke did. The issues between us, Leibniz said of Locke, are matters of some importance; he referred to Plato the good guy and Aristotle, not so good. Many of the nature/nurture arguments seem also to recapitulate the scholastic Christian and Muslim problem of determinism/freedom. Cognition v. culture is where we have got to after debates in the West spanning millennia.

Benjamin Lee Whorf gave Sapir’s ideas their most radical twist. He was employed all his life by an insurance company as a chemical engineer; his business acumen was directed at the causes of fires. In his free time he studied under Sapir. Reporting later from the American south-west and into Mexico, he found that peoples with whom he talked in the deserts did not even share our organisation of time and space. He died in 1941, but when his individual papers were put together in paperback in 1956 he became a cult figure, his ideas soon partially assimilated to Thomas Kuhn’s doctrine of incommensurability.

Sapir and Mead had become common wisdom by 1950, and sophomores revelled in Whorf from 1956. Tides turned. Noam Chomsky was the most powerful agent in the turning that took place in the 1960s. Citing Descartes all the way, he argued that the ability of children to begin speaking any language spoken around them shows they have an innate capacity to do so, and hence there must be a basic structure that underlies all languages, for which every normal infant is prepared. What really counts about language, then, is determined by nature, not nurture. There are specific inherited capacities, of which speaking grammatically is only one. The search for universal grammar continues apace, although not in quite the uncontested way of the early years of enthusiasm.

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[*] Ian Hacking wrote about The Veil of Isis in the LRB of 10 May 2007.

[†] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s pamphlet, The Turn of the Native, is published by Prickly Paradigm Press. Geoffrey Lloyd wrote about Philippe Descola’s Par-delà nature et culture in the TLS (17 March 2006).