Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27, 748-749

Commentary on S. Atran & A. Norenzayan (2004), "Religion's evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion"

Cognition and Communication in Culture's Evolutionary Landscape

Mark Schaller
Department of Psychology
University of British Columbia
2136 West Mall
Vancouver BC V6T 1Z4



Abstract: Atran and Norenzayan's analysis fits with other perspectives on evoked culture: Cultural beliefs might emerge simply from the fact that people share a common cognitive architecture. But no perspective on culture can be complete without incorporating the unstoppable role of communication. The evolutionary landscape of culture will be most completely mapped by theories that describe specifically how communication translates evolved cognitive canals into cultural beliefs.


There are few systems of belief and behavior so prototypically "cultural" as those that define a religion. Just as religion may be a predictable by-product of a canalizing evolutionary landscape, many other features of human cultures can also be best viewed as accidental by-products of specific psychological dispositions that emerged for very different reasons altogether. As others (e.g., Tooby & Cosmides, 1992) have suggested, in order to crack the complicated code we call culture, we will be wise to first figure out the specific cognitive canals carved by our evolutionary past.

Atran and Norenzayan apply this approach cleverly; the useful upshot is a penetrating perspective on several paradigmatic elements of religion. Others may take a broader view of religion and wonder whether an evolutionary canalization approach can also explain the kinds of moral injunctions that show up in, say, the Ten Commandments. It can. Krebs and Janicki (2004) describe how which specific evolutionary pressures inclined the human mind toward specific kinds of moral norms. These norms may be codified in somewhat different ways in different religious systems, but the norms themselves appear to be universal. More generally, even when moral thinking appears to appeal to specific religious values, it may actually be a byproduct of automatically-activated emotional responses – such disgust – that evolved for reasons entirely independent of their cultural consequences (Haidt, 2001).

These and other examples suggest that one of the defining features of any culture – its sharedness across a population – can emerge simply from the fact that people share a common cognitive architecture. Widespread cultural beliefs can be evoked by cognition, even in the absence of persuasion, socialization, or other acts of interpersonal information transmission (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). This insight is important, and it surely appeals to our very human preference for parsimony.

But wait a minute; not so fast. Any pared-down, parsimonious approach to culture leaves out too much reality. The fact is that people do talk. It's one of our most prototypically human attributes. Our proclivity for communication was surely adaptive for very specific reasons that have nothing to do with the creation and perpetuation of culture (e.g., Dunbar, 1996). And yet, inevitably, our tendency to talk has unintended cultural consequences. Research on "dynamic social impact" reveals how seemingly trivial acts of interpersonal communication, repeated across time and social space, create the rudimentary outlines of culture within any human population (Latan้, 1996; Harton & Bourgeois, 2004). Other research shows that the mere act of communication influences stereotypic beliefs about the populations with which we self-identify – thus creating and perpetuating socially-shared perceptions of what "our" culture is like (Kashima & Kostopoulos, in press). These and other lines of work (e.g., Boster, 1991; Sperber, 1990) reveal the very real and relentless role that communication plays in the creation and perpetuation of truly cultural systems of belief or behavior.

Communication is not independent of cognition, of course. Just as a purely cognitive approach to culture is too parsimonious to be true, any communication-based approach to culture is incomplete without a close consideration of the evolved cognitive mechanisms that may influence acts of communication. I suspect that the evolutionary landscape of culture will be most completely mapped by theoretical perspectives that explicitly consider the causal links between evolution, cognition, and interpersonal communication – and that chart specific ways in which communication translates evolved psychological canals into cultural beliefs.

Thus far, this kind of mapping remains rudimentary. Within the recent literature on experimental psychology, though, there are a number of intriguing findings that bear on the complex chain of events that connects evolution, cognition, communication, and culture.

For instance, Schaller and Conway (1999) found that individuals' desire to impress others (a goal linked to the fundamentally adaptive need for belongingness) influenced their decisions to talk about certain kinds of topics rather than others; and these communication decisions predictably influenced the contents of emerging socially-shared beliefs. Thus, the specific nature of a socially-shared belief emerged as an unintended artifact of a more mercenary human motive. This group-level outcome was largely dependent on actual interpersonal communication; it was not evoked in the absence of this opportunity for unintended mutual influence.

Another example pertains to the role of emotions in predicting the popularity of "urban legends" (Heath, Bell, & Sternberg, 2001). There exist hundreds of these apocryphal stories. Most are consigned quickly to the dust-bin of unpopular obsolescence, but some become well-known and linger in popular cultural memory. What predicts popularity? Heath et al. found that an urban legend becomes more popular if it more strongly triggers evolutionarily-fundamental self-protective emotions, such as disgust. This process depends on interpersonal transmission. Successful stories succeed (and so become cultural) not merely because their emotional resonance makes them memorable, but because it makes them communicable.

A third – and especially promising – example explicitly marries the logical tools of evolutionary psychology to the communication-based framework of dynamic social impact theory (Kenrick, Li, & Butner, 2003). Some cultural systems (such as those pertaining to courtship and mating systems) are the result of a sort of implicit interpersonal negotiation between individuals with different kinds of evolved priorities. The eventual impact of evolved cognitive canals on cultural structures emerges nonlinearly, and can take on forms that are surprising from the perspective of any purely individual-level analysis of cognitive predispositions. The message of this "dynamical evolutionary psychology" is clear: The causal influence of individuals' thoughts on collective outcomes is complex and highly dynamic – and cannot be accurately predicted without models that identify specific ways in which individuals' evolved inclinations are communicated interpersonally.

These and other examples address many different kinds of social norms and cultural belief systems. It's likely that religious beliefs too are fundamentally influenced not only by the predictable ways in which we think, but also by the predictable ways in which we talk. An evolutionary analysis of religion – and an evolutionary analysis of culture more generally – will be most complete and compelling when canals of cognition are considered in conjunction with the unstoppable consequences of communication.



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