The Emergence of Neuroanthropology
‘[B]iological and cultural life is a whole’ —Franz Boas (General Anthropology, 1938: 5)
Anthropology is the investigation of human being. Franz Boas’ dream was of a big anthropology that studied the ‘whole’ of this being, which included the interconnection of the cultural and the biological in all places and all times. Sadly Boas never attained his dream because it was so necessary at the beginning of the 20th century to demonstrate that one biological-cultural connection did not exist, that between race and culture. However, recent publication in Anthropological Theory (AT, March 2012) of an issue devoted to the topic of the brain and culture suggests a new field of neuroanthropology is emerging, offering the possibility of attainment of the Boasian dream. Allow me to introduce readers to the articles in AT, suggest some intellectual possibilities they open, other activities currently occurring in the rising neuroanthropology, and why a neo-Boasianism is imaginable.
There are four articles and a commentary in the AT issue. The first of these is by Juan Dominguez who proposes a phenomenological future for anthropology, which seeks ‘a theory of the experiential and neurobiological aspects of cultural activity’. The second article is by Robert Turner, the son of Victor Turner (himself interested in neuroscience at the end of his life). Turner turns the tables: Instead of showing the importance of neuroscience for anthropology he argues the relevance of culture for a cognitive neuroscience that tends to ignore cultural variability. Charles Whitehead, author of the third article, demonstrates neuroanthropology’s utility for the study of human evolution. He formulates a concept of the culture-ready brain and uses it as part of a play and display hypothesis of brain expansion, which seems consistent with fossil and archeological findings. My own article is the fourth in the issue. It employs neuroscience to answer the question: what is interpretation? Specifically, it argues that within the brain there is a cultural neurohermeneutic system that interprets antecedent events connecting them with subsequent actions. Andrea Roepstorff and Chris Firth, an anthropologist and a cognitive neuroscientist, comment on the four articles. En passant, they explicate experimental procedures that could operate as methodological base for certain types of research in neuroanthropology. Additionally, among other matters, they propose a Bayesian interpretation of the (neuro)hermeneutic circle as well as neural implications of cultural dimensions of the self.
Before preceding one point should be made clear: the neuroanthropology that I, and my co-authors in AT, encourage has nothing to do with sociobiology, or it recent reincarnation, evolutionary psychology. It is not a reductionism that explains cultural traits as the effect of ancient, problematic reconstruction of evolutionary conditions. Rather it is concerned to understand how highly plastic brains are connected with, and respond to, their environments.
The articles in AT suggest a bright future for neuroanthropology because they address significant intellectual issues. Perhaps, first among these is that it furthers knowledge of the subjective; the realm within persons that is so important in giving them their being. The problem of the study of the subjective has been a methodological one. Whether one conceptualizes the subjective in terms of the Freudian id, ego, and super ego, the Lacanian imaginary, or a Bourdieuian habitus; what has been observed of them is not what they are but what they are supposed to do. Another way of saying this is that the ‘is’ of subjectivity has been missing. Now the analysis of something in terms of what it does and not in terms of what it is, at best is incomplete; and at worst wrong, because some other ‘is’ might do it. If the brain is understood as the most important part of the reality that is subjectivity, then for a long time it was not possible to observationally get inside the living brain. However, gradually a number of techniques were developed, some by Robert Turner, for imaging the brain as it went about the business of minding subjectivity. The most important of these techniques has been magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which began in the 1970s. It is clear from such studies that the brain produces basic attributes of the subjective including unconscious happenings, and conscious sensations, feelings, and reasonings.
Perhaps, a first, and controversial, conclusion of neuroanthropology is that the subjective is objective: The extraordinarily complex, material neural noodles of the nervous system; which are a supremely reflexive organization of structures with the capacity to reflect in the present on the past to produce a future. The AT articles each employ information from MRI studies of the neural noodles, and use them to rethink questions that have been of enduring importance within, and beyond, anthropology. Questions such as: What is interpretation? What is the nature of experience? Further, one can imagine that neuroanthropology will contribute to debates over human rationality by providing information about the relationships between the parts of the brain that perform calculations, the parts that generate emotions, and the extensive neural inter-relations between these two parts of the brain.
The AT issue on culture and the brain is far from the only activity in neuroanthropology. Interested persons might wish to consult Daniel Lende and Greg Downey’s forthcoming The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (Cambridge, MA: MIT). Additionally they might explore the neuroanthropology blog for postings as well as information of conferences and web resources.
Finally, it is time to return to Boas’s dream. I believe asking neuroanthropology to join a big tent, four-field anthropology opens a possibility of realizing this dream. Elsewhere (Reyna, Connections: Brain, Mind, and Culture in a Social Anthropology, 2002) I have argued that what I term I-space (others prefer the subjective) and E-space (others prefer the objective) are physically linked by sensory organs (especially those of sight and sound). This physical linkage means that I-space and E-space, the subjective and objective, are part of the same geography of being. They are a monad. There are structures of E-space (economic, political, etc.) that are connected with structures of I-space (the pre-frontal cortex, the parietal cortex, etc), and history is a stately (actually oftentimes not so stately) procession of events in E-space influencing those in I-space that, in turn, influence those in I-space, and on and on through space and time. In such an anthropology, social and cultural anthropologists investigate the dynamics of E-space structures that connect with I-space; while cultural neuroanthropologists analyze the dynamics of I-space structures that connect with E-space; and through such practices come to understand how the neurobiological and the cultural are a whole. Such an anthropological practice is neo-Boasian because connected with the cultural is not any old biological phenomenon but, more precisely, the neurobiological.
Stephen Reyna is currently at the Conflict and Integration Working group of the Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology. His publications concern social theory, power, culture and the brain, war, oil, and Africa. He authored Connections: Brain, Mind, and Culture in a Social Anthropology (2002).