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.

Once the cognitive revolution wrought by Chomsky was under way, nurture came tumbling down. The present imperative to find genes for absolutely everything reinforces the imbalance. Evolutionary psychology now propounds imaginative explanations of things that we do as adaptations acquired in our prehistoric past, while Chomsky has become an old fogey, complaining that we do not know enough about the brain, or about early human beings and their environment, to speculate on evolutionary pressures. (I agree.) But the turn to innate cognitive structures as opposed to socially acquired habits owes more to him than anyone else.

Today, then, nature rules. Take emotions. Galton’s cousin Darwin, in his wonderful book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, presented remarkable evidence from correspondents around the world to show that the expression of emotions on human faces is universal. It must have evolved from the ways in which animals express the same emotions. The facial musculature of dogs (yes, dogs again) and men is not all that different, and there is an evolutionary history of the way faces (and other parts of the body) show what one is feeling.

All that fell out of favour in the era of Mead and Malinowski. Different peoples not only express emotions differently, but also have different emotions to express. The very filing of stuff under the heading of ‘emotions’ was a suspect bit of European conceptualisation. Now universal emotions have returned with a vengeance. Paul Ekman led the charge, in parallel to but independently of Chomsky’s cognitive revolution. After doing clinical work on emotions and the body, and a stint as a US army psychologist, he travelled to New Guinea to see for himself, and made observations opposite to those of his predecessors. His conclusions are much like Darwin’s. They are now being enormously bolstered by brain research. At least this much is known for sure: one of the oldest parts of the human brain, the amygdala, is activated by immediate fear, and that is a fact about nature, not nurture, for everyone on the planet.

This is not an academic issue. The Dalai Lama meets with Ekman so they can share insights on how to achieve and express emotional balance. The War on Terror supports research to design computer programs based on Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System, which will pick out in passenger queues the faces of people planning to blow up planes; Ekman’s personal website lists a project aimed at detecting expressions of IDI – Immediate Deadly Intent. He also plans to process pixels in order to expose a demeanour that betrays ‘lies about the intent to commit a harmful act’. Very roughly speaking, much of the cognitive science community thinks this approach is right on, even if IDI is taking things too far. Some anthropologists think it is nuts, megalomaniac.

Nurture did not stay tumbled down for long. All sorts of pressing criticisms of nature began to emerge. The debate now infects every branch of the human sciences. Nature may still be winning, for the moment, almost everywhere, but much less is settled than one might have expected. Where does Geoffrey Lloyd, a classical scholar, knighted for ‘services to the history of thought’, come in? Early on he became interested in comparative anthropology thanks to Meyer Fortes and Edmund Leach at Cambridge. He acquired the idea of a historical anthropology from Jean-Pierre Vernant in Paris. Twenty years ago he took up ancient Chinese science. He has since become the world’s foremost contributor to studies comparing aspects of ancient Greek and Chinese civilisations. In a series of half a dozen books he has described analogies and differences, and shown how each world relied on its own local institutions to generate its respective bodies of knowledge and skills. Inevitably, he has always been on the edge of nature/nurture, the question being: how much of what is common to both civilisations arose simply from the fact that they were human? And if he attended to local idiosyncrasies, how much was he missing the big picture? His entry into comparative studies coincided with the increasing dominance of universals among theorists of human nature. In his new book, he faces many of the debates head on, issue by issue.

The first of his eight chapters is about colour, the last about reason. Emotions are the subject of Chapter 4. The result is a balanced run-through of the fairly current state of evidence and argument. When in doubt, he tips the balance towards nurture. There is a confidence abroad, especially in the cognitive sciences, in the claim that this or that aspect of behaviour is (or ‘must be’) a universal feature of human nature. Lloyd allows himself a certain irony in contrasting claims with evidence.

Each chapter is organised in the same way. First come clear-cut theses on the side of a universal human nature. Then queries and doubts. Lloyd’s title, Cognitive Variations, expresses his scepticism about the universals, while granting that there have to be innate underlying human capacities on which nurture acts. A chapter usually ends with an examination of likenesses and differences between ancient Greece and China, both to show what is shared by these two civilisations, and hence perhaps is due to human nature, and to show what is different, a matter of nurture.

Each case is complex, but the first chapter, on colour, has, at first sight, the fewest issues, and reflects the tone of the book. So I shall dwell on that, as the easiest way to see the lay of the land. We start with the ‘universalist’ results of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. In the 1960s, they established a categorisation of basic colours. Some languages will have only a few names for colours, but if there are three, they will be black, white and red. If four, add yellow or green, if five, both of those. In all there are, by successive addition in a definite sequence, about eleven basic colours. After being sophomorically bowled over by Whorf, I was bowled over by Berlin and Kay.

How was it done? Kay returned from his ethnographic apprenticeship in Tahiti, and Berlin from one among the Maya; both got jobs at Berkeley. Both their peoples had short colour words that pretty well translate short English names for colours. They and their students went into the field around the San Francisco Bay Area, armed with an array of coloured chips. They sought people not tinged much by contact with foreigners and asked them which chips corresponded best to their short colour-related words. They also asked them to draw a ring around chips on the board to which the word could also be applied. The result was an almost linear ordering of colour concepts, which proves that all peoples inhabit the same basic colour space. Exit Whorf, at least for colour concepts – and probably much else. The physiology of vision began to kick in: yes, the colour space elicited by B&K was a consequence of the way human eyes work.

Lloyd states the position well and turns next to queries and doubts. Decades later, the very vigorous field of colour sciences – ranging from genetics through computational models to psychology – has a lot of competing voices. The Berlin-Kay approach still dominates, but there are more questions than ever before. Some critics play the B&K game and find hitherto unstudied peoples whose colour talk does not fit the template. Other critics call the game itself in question.

Start with those innocent toys, the colour chips. They are small, rectangular, hard and shiny. The only property that distinguishes them is their colour, which is always what is called a saturated colour. (In colour science, colours come in three dimensions: saturation, hue and lightness.) The chips are the culmination of centuries of Western fascination with colour in the abstract, not just among painters but also among physicists, Newton, Helmholtz and the poet-physicist Goethe. About 1900, Albert Munsell, a minor land and seascape painter, had the post-Impressionist notion that an artist could match a fleck of colour in the scene before him, and then choose from his palette the paints to produce exactly that colour. (He seems to have been a positivist Pissarro.) His patented scheme became part of innumerable toolkits – for soil surveys, beer etc. It is the standardiser of the man-made world, admirably suited to the technology of plastic artefacts. Think of Euroapples, bred for display in shiny colours. We live in a Munsellised world. The full standard Munsell atlas (‘over 1600 removable high-gloss colour samples on 40 constant-hue pages’) sells for £395.

By hypothesis, the informants who play the B&K colour game have never seen anything remotely like these shiny chips. So, some critics say, B&K have shown that co-operative people anywhere can learn to play the game and, interestingly, the colours are linearly arranged in an order of difficulty. But the word that an informant matches with, say, ‘red’, may for him primarily denote life or danger or menstruating women, or a complex of all three. Far-fetched? ‘Green’ in English signifies pleasant and alluring; full of life and vigour; immature; vivid despite the passage of time; marked by pale or sickly appearance; freshly sawed; lacking sophistication. I am running through Webster’s.

We have made the learning of colour words one of the first required stages in a child’s mastery of language, a mastery inculcated by making the child play with blocks of painted wood in standard colours. (I wonder when that began? It seems to have been current in Queen Victoria’s time.) Darwin himself noticed that children have much more difficulty acquiring colour words than in picking up names for things, and was rightly surprised. Following the philosophers, he had expected that colours would be cardinal among our concepts, and easy to learn by abstraction. They are not, at first. Nevertheless, life without our concept of colour seems unthinkable for us. That, the critics say, is an effect of our history, not of our genes.

The third issue is balance. Lloyd shares the doubts, but dismisses, on the basis of all this research, the far-out notions of total conceptual relativity deriving from earlier investigators, such as Sapir and Whorf. It is true that informants can adapt their language in a generally agreed way so that particular words are deemed to match particular chips. That confirms the nature side of the debate, but it doesn’t confirm much more than that. He also reports that physiology turns out to be less helpful than expected. Colour psychophysics is a field strewn with refuted conjectures.

Some would go further than Lloyd does. Consider that no one seems to have drawn attention to colour blindness before John Dalton. That is astonishing. We can guess why Dalton noticed it: he was a keen observer, and his personal community was largely Quaker. Colour blindness ran in many early Quaker families (who dressed to suit, in black). But why are we astonished that no one noticed colour blindness before about 1800? Because we take for granted that we all refer to the same colour when we call something ‘red’. Every once in a while someone discovers that European men sort colours a bit differently from European women (the red/orange bands are a good place to look), but that usually passes for some sort of gender joke.

Turn the story around: Munsell-measured discrepancies in colour language do not matter much in daily life. They show up only when people are pretty intimate and have to share a lot of colour discriminations in a world of artefacts – husbands and wives, for example, deciding how to repaint their kitchens. Colour-blind people use colour words unself-consciously when they don’t know about colour blindness. This may suggest that there is far more to the social use of colour words than their ‘denotation’. We are not trying to get the colours just right; we use colour talk to convey much more complex and interesting things about the world and people around us. Hence, it may be suggested, the B&K experiments start with dubious assumptions not about life in the lonely jungle, but about us.

The ancients – Lloyd’s fourth heading – had a great deal to say about colour and its complexities. Old texts in Greek and Chinese have elaborate discussions of abstract colours, with major differences among authorities. Lloyd takes these as strong evidence of cognitive variation founded on fairly uniform perceptual apparatus. He turns to examples. B&K take ancient Greek glaukon unequivocally to denote ‘black’. But there are plenty of cases where it seems not to. Aristotle assures us that newborn infants have glaukon eyes. He must have meant blue, mustn’t he? Paediatricians routinely tell mothers today that their infant’s blue eyes will in most cases change quickly. Imagine this bad joke, an old one, for philosophers: given that Greek eyes are mostly dark, could Aristotle have used glaukon of babies’ eyes to mean, in part, ‘blue before the age of three months, and black thereafter’?

Lloyd’s successive chapters cover, in similar fashion, the pageant of debates about space, the self, agency and causation, health and classifications of plants and animals, as well as others that I have already mentioned. His seventh chapter introduces a worry about all these inquiries. Does the dichotomy between nature and nurture, or, as he prefers, between nature and culture, already presuppose too much? Western concepts of nature seem to derive from notions for which classical Greece used the word phusis. That tale is itself extraordinary. One fascinating version is told in Pierre Hadot’s The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature.[*] No Chinese ideas followed the same course. At best you can encounter them as major variations on themes that Europe got from its Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamian ancestors. Our idea of nature is not notably natural, let alone innate: the nature/ nurture debates may thus be intrinsically Eurocentric.

The real punch of this chapter comes when it goes west, not east, and turns to anthropological theory derived from work with indigenous peoples of Brazil. Lloyd introduces two remarkable students of ontology and cosmology not yet widely known to English readers: Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Philippe Descola.[†] Descola puts in question our confident opposition of nature and culture, and is clearly sceptical about the other faithful dichotomies, nature/nurture, Man/Nature, nature/society, cognition/culture, body/soul and mind/ matter.

Descola worked for many years with peoples in the upper Amazon – he writes about this in The Spears of Twilight (1993). The jaguar plays an important role in their life. But not as another species, not as part of Nature which excludes Man, but as a being neither exactly material nor exactly spiritual, with whom we people (neither strictly as individuals nor strictly as societies) share intimate relations (neither exactly social, nor as mutually alien). This started Descola thinking about alternative cosmologies. This is a little Oedipal, for Lévi-Strauss, his master, did tend to take nature as a given. As Descola tells it, the social world involving people and jaguars, both embodied and spiritual – already ‘social world’ implies our categories of nature/society – is completely different from the Western conception of mutually exclusive realms of life.

He went on to propose a universal grid of four types of cosmology. Ours, called ‘naturalist’, is merely one of four (even if it takes a naturalist to define the grid). Our cosmology is, he thinks, surprisingly recent, ‘early modern’, and, before the age of Western imperial expansion, rare or unknown anywhere else. The cosmology of his Amazon companions is much more widely distributed, and what we crudely call ‘animism’, attributing it to people whom we take for primitive, becomes a strikingly viable cosmology. Viveiros de Castro is less committed to such abstract structures, but his account of the ontologies – the kinds of thing that exist – of the Brazilian peoples he studies fits very well with Descola’s grand scheme. Lloyd presents both, as always, with sympathy, brevity and caution.

He certainly has a lot of queries and doubts about these ideas. If he is to use Descola’s scheme, he will put his ancient Greeks in a different quadrant from European naturalism, but the boundaries are simply not as sharp as the grid demands. In the abstract, Lloyd wants some account of how a civilisation can switch from one grid to another; in history, he finds few abrupt transitions except when aliens (e.g. the Portuguese) appear out of the mists. Descola’s grid of four possible, sharply distinct ways to envision everything is much too neat for a scholar attuned, as Lloyd is, to cognitive variations. Even if Descola is right, and the nature/nurture debates analysed by Lloyd make sense only within our cosmology, there will still be best answers, in connection with each debate: not certainties, but balanced judgments made in accordance with the current state of knowledge and our forms of life.

It is a great merit of Geoffrey Lloyd’s panorama of the state of post-Galtonian knowledge that he can cautiously point beyond its set of problems. Is the entire nature/nurture vista merely a local mountain range, itself the product of a cosmology that is infinitely far from being innate? I wondered why he did not put this chapter at the end, instead of returning to the form of the first six chapters for a discussion of Reason. The peaks so clear to Galtonian eyes are nicely bundled in their separate chapters: colour, space, kinds of plants and animals, emotions, health, self, causation and reason. The anthropologists raise the suspicion that these tidy heaps are only artefacts of our perspective, rather than ‘naturally’ demarcated separate domains of inquiry. If, despite all the differences of detail, we go on asking the same questions in each domain, is there not something suspect about the way we have carved them up?

[*] 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).