Review: Wynn and Coolidge, How to think like a Neandertal

Wynn, Thomas, and Frederick Coolidge. 2012. How to think like a Neandertal. New York: Oxford University Press.  224 pp.

Reviewed by Summar Saad (Wayne State University)

With so many false representations and stereotypes floating around about the Neandertals, it’s difficult to know what is fact and what is myth. Armed with minimal archaeological evidence and their knowledge of primates and modern hunter-gatherers, archaeologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick Coolidge attempt to reconstruct Neandertal cognitive abilities, sometimes very indirectly, based on their diet, hunting strategies, and technology. While the book is an exercise in speculation, Wynn and Coolidge treat the Neandertal story in an engaging, witty way that rethinks the notion that modern humans are light-years apart when it comes to their cognitive abilities.

Wynn and Coolidge begin by examining the skeletal remains of recovered Neandertal fossils to recreate the Neandertal image – big-brained, stocky, muscular, barrel chested – and illustrate the rough lives they lived based on their injuries and likely causes of death. By doing this they are able to deduce three personality traits that Neandertals possibly exhibited: 1) tenacity or dogged perception, 2) wariness, and 3) love (p.20). Throughout the rest of the book, Wynn and Coolidge continue to build on these personality traits, growing the list to nine, to include unimaginative, dogmatic, and even xenophobic. Central to their discussion is their evidence of the “Caveman Diet” and stone tool technology. In showing what kinds of game Neandertals hunted and how, they are able to ask how they thought and planned. What follows is a thought experiment, in which Wynn and Coolidge tease apart the cognitive functions necessary in negotiating landscapes and setting up ambushes, which they argue require long-term memory, communication of tactical information, and a working memory.

In chapter 3, “The Zen and Art of Spear Making,” Wynn and Coolidge discuss the Neandertal spears which employed two important techniques: stone knapping, to make the famous “Levallois point”, and the hafting or gluing of the spear point to the shaft. The knapping technique they employed, in which they prepared a core in a way that would allow them to knock off a triangular flake, they argue, requires embodied cognition or thinking through the stone. “For an experienced artisan, tools are extensions of perception, and hence extensions of the mind” (p.57). Following an in-depth discussion of technical thinking and mastery from blacksmithing to music to sports, Wynn and Coolidge assert that modern technical thinking is very similar to how Neanderthals thought through their stone tools. Neandertals, however, apart from using glue to assemble their spears, did not innovate like modern humans, perhaps partly because of their lower working memory but more likely because of social networks, which Wynn and Coolidge argue, were not effective for the social transfer of knowledge and expertise.

From chapter 4 onward, the discussion takes an even more speculative turn. Making inferences about cognitive abilities based on known hunting and technology strategies are one thing, but making them about family life, humor, dreaming, and personality is a whole different matter. Their analysis of Neandertal symbolic life and language is somewhat less presumptuous. While there is evidence for minimal corpse burial, the use of fire, and the presence of ochre and manganese dioxide possibly used for coloring something, Wynn and Coolidge conclude that Neandertal life was not immersed in symbols (p.121). They also conclude that Neandertals did in fact have speech, as evidenced by their expanded Broca’s area in the brain as well as the presence of the human FOXP2 gene found in DNA sequencing. However, their language was much different than modern language in that it was situated in task-relevant contexts with limited productivity. Wynn and Coolidge end by inviting the reader to imagine what life might be like for a Neandertal living in a period dominated by modern humans and a modern human living with Neandertals. The outcome, we can only speculate, does not look very promising for modern humans.

It’s fascinating to think that Wynn and Coolidge’s conclusions of Neandertal life came simply from knowing where Neandertals lived and traveled, the tools that they made, what game they hunted and how, and how they buried their dead. Sometimes Wynn and Coolidge voyage so deep into a single story you almost forget that it’s mostly conjecture, and that Neandertals were not a stage of evolution that preceded modern humans. Despite this, How to think like a Neandertal is an entertaining read that does offer some interesting perspectives on what the cognitive abilities of our shared ancestor homo heidlebergensis might have looked like. It also provides a useful methodological approach through which to examine cognitive archaeological questions for which we do not have all the evidence to answer. Aside from this, there seems to be no evidence to back Wynn and Coolidge’s often-frustrating claims about the behavior and culture of our prehistoric cousins who lived between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Review: Malafouris, How things shape the mind

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How things shape the mind: a theory of material engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 321 pp.

Reviewed by Michael Thomas (Wayne State University)

In How Things Shape the Mind, the archaeologist Lambros Malafouris outlines his Material Engagement Theory, which developed along the lines of inquiry initiated by Colin Renfrew in his work on measurement and weights. Renfrew, thus, provides a useful introduction to Malafouris’ book. In essence, material engagement is a synthetic approach of a few important developments in the archaeological study of materiality, neurology, and cognition toward understanding how humans engage with material artifacts in a way that constructs the human mind.

Malafouris asks that we take material culture seriously, and he’s in good company. Seldom does one encounter an archaeologist or anthropologist who doesn’t claim to be taking this important step away from underappreciating materiality. The familiar claim is that since Rene Descartes, Western science has not sufficiently apprehended the inextricable interactive connectedness between what was formerly erroneously dichotomized as body and mind. In truth, there is no such distinction and many attempts have been made to articulate just what sort of phenomena exists as “mind” that is continuous with the material world. Malafouris’ attempt here is to integrate some of those prior attempts into a coherent whole that explains how the mind is an emergent property of particular interactions. He does this with three moves.

The first necessary step is to advance the theory of extended mind. This theory, developed from the philosopher Andy Clark, is expanded by Malafouris to include insights from the closely related cognitive approaches of distributed, embodied, and situated cognition. The principal contribution of Malafouris here is in providing empirical and historical evidence for the ways in which material artifacts are not merely aids to an internal cognitive process, but are in fact integral to the process itself. In short, the extended mind posits that the mind is not an internal processing device that is ontologically extricable from the elements of content, but rather, “mind” describes the process wherein external materials are constitutive of the process such that there is no process of which to speak absent the external materials. The example Malafouris uses are the Mycenaean Linear B tablets that encoded memory. They function not as reminders, or tools, but rather as external mechanisms of a memory process that requires perception and percept.

The second required argument is that of enactive signification. Enactive signification refers to the mode of signification wherein the meaning of some sign or act is located in the interactive process itself, and is not symbolically encoded in the sign as a representation. Readers familiar with Peirce and Heidegger will find this argument convincing, and this is due in no small part to Malafouris’ presentation. Malafouris accomplishes this by appealing largely to empirical archaeological evidence wherein he demonstrates that numeracy was not merely encoded onto clay material as though it were a recording of a mental process, but rather, the clay itself acts as a means of providing signification for its enabling a qualitatively different cognitive process than what might be neurologically inherent prior to such material engagement. The manipulation of clay permits familiar perceptual processes to manage greater degrees of complex computation. The ability of the clay to do this resides in the process of manipulation such that it is no mere recording device, but a computational device.

Finally, Malafouris asserts the agency of materials. This agency is essential for supporting the thesis that not only do humans rely upon a tangible, manipulable world for cognition, but that the materials themselves play an active role in structuring cognition, and thus humans. Not merely do these materials structure a situated cognitive process, but they structure diachronically the neurological and physical substrate of the human insofar as they co-develop the means by which the world is intelligible.

In all, Malafouris’ book will be sympathetically received by any reader familiar with, and convinced by, the phenomenological approach to understanding ontology. Further, Malafouris does quite a bit here to ground the phenomenological theory in much-needed evidence in order to make it comprehensible to the empirically minded. That said, Malafouris admits that his isn’t a positivist perspective, and so making predictive explanations is theoretically outside the purview of his project. This may prove frustrating to those readers who feel inclined to test some of these theories; of course this is the case with much of socio-cultural theory. At last, Malafouris’ crusade against Descartes and those models of cognition reliant upon abstract symbolic processing may appear to be a bit theatrical and slightly made of straw for the reason that few readers following the scholarship of cognition and materiality still find enthusiastic advocates the disembodied mind; the problem is less of theory than of application.

Review: Saxe, Cultural development of mathematical ideas

Saxe, Geoffrey B. 2012. Cultural development of mathematical ideas.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 393 pp.

Reviewed by Summar Saad (Wayne State University)

In Cultural Development of Mathematical Ideas, Geoffrey B. Saxe takes an ambitious approach in exploring the cultural and cognitive origins of mathematical thought. Using an extensive number of experiments oriented towards the particular practices of the Oksapmin of Papua New Guinea, Saxe demonstrates that individual action in relation to collective activities such as economic exchange and schooling is the “locus of both the reproduction and the alteration of cultural phenomena, whether collective practices of daily life or cultural forms of representation” (p.191). His conceptual framework, which follows Sperber and Hirschfeld’s critique of the conceptualization of culture as fixed and bounded entities rather than a “property that representations, practices, and artifacts possess to the extent that they are caused by population-wide distribution processes (p.17),” seeks to illustrate the heterogeneity and permeability of cultural and cognitive processes through activity using synchronic and diachronic perspectives.

In Part I, Saxe begins by framing the scope of his study using relevant scholarly work on the area of cognition and mathematical thought, and details his time in the field in 1978, 1980, and 2001. His approach interrogates three genetic processes: 1) microgenesis, the transformation of the body-part form into a vehicle to represent values numerically, 2) sociogenesis, which involves the microgenetic activities of multiple individuals at multiple sites that, collectively, constitute a process in which representational forms and functions are reproduced and altered in a community over time, and 3) ontogenesis, which involves the shifts in form-function relations in activity over the course of an individual’s development (p.29). Using a number of helpful figures, Saxe also unravels the specifics of the Oksapmin body-counting system where one begins counting with the thumb on one hand of the body and continues across to the opposite side ending at the little finger. Familiarity with this system is important for his investigation into how this system changes through time. By this point, the readers are ready to enter the field, where Saxe attempts to tease out the historical and social processes at play in the way the Oksapmin respond to mathematical challenges in collective activities under shifting conditions.

In Part II, Saxe traces the history of Papua New Guinea from a pre-contact period where people traded commodities including a shell currency (bonang) and through the sustained contact of the Oksapmin communities with Western societies, which led to the proliferation of trade stores that supported cash as the universal medium for exchange. Focusing on the activity of economic exchange, Saxe asserts that “with increasing participation in the money economy associated with Oksapmin cohorts, we find a shift from external correspondences that serve numerical functions to internal correspondences that serve arithmetical functions” (p.95). Saxe then shifts his focus from knowledge of Oksapmin body-part counting and Tok Pisin representational forms to look at the semiotic forms people use to represent the objects of economic exchange. What he discovers is that over time, as people began using the body system to quantify currency, reciprocally the currency system became incorporated into the structure of the body-counting system. Ultimately Saxe demonstrates that cognitive processes exhibit uniformity and variation in a single period as well as unity and discontinuity over historical time.

In Part III, Saxe reviews the transformation of schooling in Oksapmin beginning in the early 1960s and following the introduction of “Western schooling,” Bible school, and community schooling. Rather than conceptualizing schooling as a direct cause of cognitive development, Saxe focuses on the dynamics of the reproduction and alteration of the forms of numerical representation and the functions they serve as students and teachers participate in collective practices of classroom life (p. 194). He establishes the ways in which Oksapmin children reproduce the body form as they solve arithmetical problems in the same way that they produce variants in the body form, “inadvertently altering the use of the system to serve new functions (p.236).” With recent educational reforms, he notes a shift in the teaching of mathematics using only English to using Tok Pisin and Oksapmin as well. Saxe observes that with this shift came others including the use of stones in classroom computations as well as a developing facility with Hindu-Arabic-based algorithms.

In Part IV, Saxe brings the discussion full circle and returns to the implications of his findings with regards to his conceptual framework. In his analysis, he points to three key properties that emerge in form-function relations: conventionality, hybridity, and instrumentality. Using parallels from evolutionary biology, he also takes up the question of how form-function relations develop and why. Though not an anthropologist, Saxe deserves great credit for his ethnographic treatment of this serious cognitive question. Saxe successfully presents an alternative methodological approach to our understandings of culture and cognition that does not treat them as independent but rather as an interplay of the two. His work offers great insight into cognition and culture as processes rooted in a multiplicity of contexts and activities. Although this book covers a lot of ground, and is sometimes very abstract, the organization and flow of the content is seamless and easy to follow. Saxe also takes great care to account for any threats to validity, and while each of the eighteen individual studies he conducts are not without their flaws; the overall picture shines clearly at the end: culture and cognition are processes interwoven and linked through activity.

Review: Ingold, Lines: a brief history

Ingold, Tim. 2007. Lines: A Brief History. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press. 186pp.

Reviewed by Molly Hilton (Wayne State University)

Get out your walking stick and your comfortable shoes as you accompany Tim Ingold on this intellectual wayfarers’ journey exploring the “comparative anthropology of the line” (p1). In his path-breaking book, Lines: A Brief History, Ingold guides readers through a unique theoretical model that explores the interconnected and enmeshed lines of people and things. Ingold argues things and people are the sum of interconnected lines; to study “things and people is to study the lines they are made of” (p5). Lines and their relationships to surfaces offer a provocative frame from which to consider questions central to anthropology.

Anthropologists will find themselves familiar with “lines”: lines of descent, lines of story, lines of travel, lines of movement, lines of music, and so on. Lines: A Brief History challenges established conventions, such as kinship charts that use line to connect the dots, to advocate a theoretical approach that accounts for movement, growth and interrelationship. This challenge is animated by a key theme used throughout the book – the distinction between wayfaring and transport. Wayfaring describes a way of being in that the “traveler and his line are one and the same” (p 76). The path of the wayfarer is where life is lived. Drawing on Gibson, Ingold states that the wayfarer’s path is where knowledge is forged along the way. Transport lines are destination-oriented. They are connectors. The traveler becomes a passenger fighting against time to reach a destination. Transport lines are teleological. Ingold enjoins the reader to become wayfarer, engaging in the journey through chapters building up knowledge as one “goes along” forsaking the impulse for a “built up” conclusion.

In Lines, Ingold commences with the question how did speech become separated from song? He explores the historical relationship between speech, song, writing and musical notation. Before the printing press, both written text and song were performative as were the processes of inscription. Written notation functioned as mnemonic artifact rather than a script or score that ensured a faithful record or copy. Using comparative examples from medieval history, present day Shipibo-Conibo people in Peru, and Japanese noh theater, Ingold argues that the words “speak” to readers not as a representation of sound but in the manner of synesthesia actual sound. Writing could not be accurately conceptualized as a “visual representation of verbal sound” (p27).

Both musical notation and writing involve lines and surfaces. “To read a manuscript… is to follow the trails laid down by a hand that joins the voice in pronouncing the words of a text” (p28). The advent of printing disconnected manual gesture from the graphic output and thereby disconnected the voice (embodiment) from the page of print. Printed works became static documents. What heralded this transformation was a “fundamental change” in the conception of line and its relationship to the surface. The inscribed printed lines (words) changed the manuscript surface from a landscape to be explored into a surface that is fixed and bounded.

Ingold proposes a taxonomy of lines. The two primary types are threads and traces. Threads have a surface and can be made by human hands, or not (i.e. roots, spider webs, yarn, fishing-net, violin strings). Traces are any enduring mark left in a solid surface. Traces can be additive or reductive, or neither (i.e. worn path, chalk on blackboard, stick in sand, snail trail). Ghostly lines have no physical manifestation (i.e. constellations, survey lines, time-zones, borders). Ingold notes that the distinction between ghostly lies and real lines is “decidedly problematic” (p50). The differentiation may privilege a Western perspective. The meridian lines of Chinese medicine may be real according to a Chinese practitioner but considered ghostly (imagined) to a Western observer. Ingold does not offer any guidance on how to resolve this conundrum. He concedes that the entire line taxonomy is imperfect and potentially confusing.

Surfaces are not simply a “taken-for-granted backdrop” (p39). Whether regarded as a landscape, a space to be colonized, the skin of the body or a mirror of the mind, the conception of the surface deeply affects its relationship to line. Threads transforming into traces create surfaces (p61). For instance, knitting constitutes a surface as the knotted threads form a single surface leaving traces of the composition still visible. Traces transforming into threads dissolve surfaces. To explicate, Ingold engages with Alfred Gell’s argument that apotropaic patterns are perceived to lure demonic forces to a particular surface by their fascination with an intricate pattern. Gell’s aerial-view perspective was mistaken. Ingold convincingly argues, the trap is not one of fascination, but rather, the lines drawn cease to be a surface and become threads that trap the demon. This example demonstrates the potential explanatory power of “a comparative anthropology of the line.”

Can lines help us understand the ruptures of modernity? In the final chapter, Ingold explores the implications of “straight” lines. Straight lines are associated with moral uprightness, quantitative explanations, reason and dignity. Somewhat parallel to the metaphor of wayfinding/transport, the “workmanship of risk” has been displaced in modern society by the “workmanship of certainty.” An implement of certainty, modern CAD design embodies no movement or gesture. The straight line, the line of certainty, has become an icon of modernity (p167). This is where ruptures occur. We are reminded that fragmentation can create passages.

Sections of this book are somewhat opaque and/or vague. Given the authors concluding statements we must accept that at some of these “loose ends” are intentional (p170). I’ve already mentioned that the taxonomy of line and surface have much room for elaboration. I’ll mention just one other example here. In the Introduction (p3), Ingold argues that if we envision evolution as a tangle of enmeshed intra-human and inter-species relationships “then our entire understanding of evolution would be irrevocably altered.” It is not clear if Ingold is referring to our proclivity to fix the human lives into “temporal moments.” Alternatively this passage could refer to the enmeshment of multiple species “continually [forging] their own and each other’s lives.” How either alternative would change our conception of evolution is not clear.

Lines: A Brief History invites the reader on a wayfarer’s journey. It’s not entirely clear where one is going or where one has been, but it is clear that one has grown along the way.

Review: Lloyd, Cognitive variations

Lloyd, G.E.R. 2007. Cognitive variations: reflections on the universality and diversity of the human mind. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press. 201 pp.

Reviewed by Grace Pappalardo (Wayne State University)

G.E.R. Lloyd’s Cognitive Variations is loyal to its name, exploring a wide variety of cognitive differences as well as similarities cross-culturally and historically. Lloyd vehemently supports a cross-disciplinary approach to understanding cognitive variations and proves this time and again throughout the text, exploring and analyzing arguments in favor of both nature and culture as well as from universalists and particularists. He also makes the important distinction that he seeks not to prove the validity or falsity of past claims on the topics he explores, but rather to determine to what extent these claims are applicable to the greater argument. Cognitive Variations serves not as a cognitive encyclopedia, but rather as a critical overview of the research that has been done thus far in some areas of cognition. Lloyd does not seek to answer any unresolved matters, but rather to analyze the value of the available data and offer a new platform for further discussion.

Cognitive Variations addresses the commonalities and differences in human cognition using a multidisciplinary approach. In each section, he focuses on a different area of cognition currently under investigation and assesses the research and findings on each thus far. He systematically tackles topics of debate, such as color perception and natural kinds, and forms each chapter in a way that synthesizes the multidisciplinary information provided, alongside his own extensive knowledge of classical Greek and Chinese thought. In doing so, he emphasizes the multidimensionality of phenomena, explaining that across cultures, each group of people will choose to assign importance to one or some of a variety of aspects. Additionally, he grapples with the reality that even people within a common culture can differ from each other considerably, making the discovery of commonalities a challenge. However, these differences are also not solid evidence for particularism, which, as Lloyd establishes throughout, is why an interdisciplinary approach to cognition is truly best. Lastly, throughout the text, he touches on themes of methodological error and erroneous conclusion based thereupon, explaining that presupposing a result can in fact skew that result. He argues that a myopic approach utilizing a single viewpoint or discipline can lead to false conclusions masquerading as accurate findings.

Lloyd very cogently argues this last point throughout his book and is careful to point out errors in methodology that may have led researchers to misleading conclusions about their subjects. This puts much of the evidence he provides into valuable perspective and reminds the reader to take caution in assuming the validity of research results. He address Berlin and Kay’s study on color perception in this way, explaining that, whether or not they intended to, their research question and materials were inherently skewed toward the results they hoped to find. He explains that Berlin and Kay essentially got the results they hoped for by failing to recognize the connotations of the differences they perceived. He claims that in their methodology, they favored hue over luminosity, which does not really allow for an appropriate answer if the informants categorized color in other terms. Lloyd here employs his knowledge of ancient Greek color classification to further explain his opposition to Berlin and Kay’s supposedly conclusive results on color universals. He presents the terms leukon and melan, which he explains are descriptors not of hue, but rather of luminosity. Additionally, Lloyd adds that similar to perceiving luminosity or saturation instead of hue, Berlin and Kay may have overlooked the fact that a color term may not have been the target identifier for a particular object. As Conklin’s findings explain, although an identifier may appear to be addressing color, it may very well be instead addressing a different primary connotation, such as wetness or dryness.

Despite the extreme variability of claims Lloyd addresses in Cognitive Variations, he manages to maintain an unbiased stance on each topic. While he imbues the text with his own judgements, his attempts at a true dissection of past arguments for the betterment of the cognitive discourse are successful. While Lloyd’s book is an impressive piece of scholarship, weaving together arguments made by those with opposing viewpoints, it is certainly an overview of these arguments. This is not to discount his achievements in bringing together such a diverse set of accounts, but rather to note that each chapter does not go into immense detail on each cognitive variation discussed. If more information was desired on certain arguments, further outside reading would be required. However, painstaking detail is not Lloyd’s objective here, but rather to bring together various and often opposing viewpoints and piece them together to make more sense of human cognition.

In total, Lloyd accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do. In sharing such a wide variety of findings from research in biology, psychology, anthropology, history, and more, he rightly concludes that the most effective way to approach issues of human cognition is through an interdisciplinary approach. As he shows throughout the text, failing to look at research findings through multiple lenses can lead to error and misleading conclusions. Taking advantage of the strengths of each discipline can make for more conclusive and accurate discoveries.

Review: Tomasello, A natural history of human thinking

Tomasello, Michael. 2014. A natural history of human thinking.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 194 pp.

Reviewed by Heather Buza (Wayne State University)

Is there a cognitive evolutionary relationship between great apes and humans? In his valuable book, A Natural History of Human Thinking, Michael Tomasello discuses current research on great ape as well human adult, toddler, and infant cognition. He provides evidence that great apes and humans share many cognitive features due to descent from a recent common ancestor, then discusses exactly what differentiates human cognition from great ape cognition. He neatly disposes with the idea that language is thought, and attempts to explain why humans think in a more cooperative and coordinated fashion. When did human cognition become substantially different from great ape cognition? What might have caused this shift in cognition? Tomasello theorizes about these questions and offers a plausible two-step shift in human cognition that he terms the shared intentionality hypothesis. From his hypothesis, Tomasello discusses how human cognition, communication and culture emerged.

Tomasello’s book covers a lot of evolutionary ground, tracing human evolution from the emergence of the genus Homo around 2 million years ago when Tomasello believes shared intentionality first emerged. Tomasello uses the term objective-reflective-normative thinking to describe the components of the shared intentionality hypothesis, which consists of three key components: our ability to represent things cognitively, to infer possible outcomes, and to monitor our own behavior in relation to the larger group norms. Thus, human cognition is unique because we are capable of evaluating situations with multiple variables, including various social perspectives, while also accounting for our own behavior and considering how it will fit into the larger behavioral norms of a group.

The first part of the two-step shift in human cognition involves the emergence of socially shared joint goals or joint intentionality. Tomasello offers the example of hunter-gatherers who begin to cooperate in order to acquire enough food for survival. Following joint intentionality, Tomasello describes collective intentionality. This second step occurs later, after the hunter-gatherers have had time to develop some cultural conventions and norms. Ultimately, this second cognitive shift resulted in modern humans’ existence in a matrix of culture and language.

Tomasello acknowledges some gaps in his theory and welcomes input. He is clear, though, that humans are not hardwired to think in a culturally cooperative, group-oriented perspective. Rather, humans are capable, and modern humans may certainly be more prone to thinking in this way, as they are constantly bombarded by culture and language. However, Tomasello reminds the reader that evolution cannot see cognition; rather, it can only see behaviors that affect survival. Cognition and decision-making abilities do not preserve well. Tomasello concludes with two questions, which require further thought. What does the individual bring to the table? While individuals participate in joint attention and joint goals, investigating what the individuals brings to the ‘joint’ portion of the communicative act is an important aspect. Also, humans’ overwhelming tendency to objectify entities should be further investigated.

Tomasello brings important new information together in his book. He highlights important contributions to the field and rightfully acknowledges the limitations of our knowledge. While on the whole approachable, could be improved with less complicated jargon at a few junctures. But importantly, Tomasello does not oversell his theory or make claims that reasonable people cannot accept. A Natural History of Human Thinking is an excellent contribution to the field of cognitive science.

Review: Cerulo, Never saw it coming

Cerulo, Karen. 2006. Never saw it coming: cultural challenges to envisioning the worst. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 336 pp.

Reviewed by Michael Thomas (Wayne State University)

Evelyn Waugh, a notoriously prickly Catholic satirist, was once asked by his friend Nancy Mitford how he could be so cruel and still call himself Christian, to which he replied, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” This pithy anecdote is useful to keep in mind when reading Karen Cerulo’s Never Saw it Coming, for it colorfully illustrates a challenge at the heart of any project seeking to evaluate the relative influence of inferred cognitive or ideological inputs on behavioral outputs.

Cerulo’s is an interesting book for a number of reasons; the curious reader is sure to find it valuable wherever they may stand in relation to its sometimes nebulous premises and impressionistic exposition. That is to say, the book primarily articulates its thesis through offering a fair amount of statistical information and some well formulated examples, though at the expense of some specificity with regard to the concepts and mechanisms underlying the phenomenon itself. Cerulo’s bold attempt at synthesizing cognitive and social theory to explain an interactive social phenomenon she calls “positive asymmetry” is less of an analytical argument than an expansive theoretical hypothesis, and so for this reason the lack of specificity may be forgivable given the scope and complexity of the central claim.

According to Cerulo, positive asymmetry functions as a bias toward privileging positive outcomes in decision-making, which can have an ultimately negative effect in that this phenomenon can occlude imagining “worst case” scenarios. The positive asymmetry is, Cerulo insists, pervasive in American, but not only American, culture and can partially explain the inability of institutions or individuals to foresee “worst case” scenarios, or, more accurately, “especially bad” scenarios. As pervasive as this phenomenon is, however, it is not universal and Cerulo is commendably sensitive to identifying where, and under what conditions, it does not apply. Aside from exceptional circumstances, this widespread failure of imagination leaves organizations and individuals vulnerable to any number of potential failure modes.

Essentially, Cerulo’s thesis is that the structure of human cognition relative to classification and inference is such that in the event of uncertainty, such as in future planning or decision making, the mind will categorize according to “best fit”. Relying on the inductive model of the mind, the “best fit” refers to a classification scheme wherein the most salient instance of a category is considered the most representative and so inferences regarding candidate members of some category are made in relation to that exemplar. Her thesis is built upon the model Eleanor Rosch advances, sometimes called prototype theory or exemplar theory, and is typically formulated in contrast to deductive theory theories such as those of Bob Reider and Doug Medin. What this means in practice is that insofar as negative circumstances, and the effects of negative circumstances, are rendered variously insignificant, they cannot participate in constituting classification criteria. For example, where deviant persons relative to the norms of some cultural milieu are ostracized, shunned, or banished, they are no longer salient. This lack of salience prohibits their inclusion in the category “person” so that the “best fit” for “person” is invariably skewed toward positive representation. Subsequent evaluations under conditions of uncertainty thus skew inferences away from “worst cases”.

This model of cognition allows Cerulo the necessary structure to integrate cultural practice, habitus, relationships of power, and social norms into the process of drawing inferences. Cerulo’s description of positive asymmetries at work in scientific measurement serves as a concise starting point for STS scholars interested in exploring the relationship of cognition and laboratory practice. She addresses the structure by which quality standards embody the positive asymmetry in all variety of forms familiar to social scientists such as power or ideology, but throughout the book she provides a deluge of examples, and it is here that the reader sees most starkly the compromise in specificity for the effect of breadth. Cerulo’s examples are numerous and presented in dizzying modalities. Statistical samples, historical narratives, pedagogical anecdotes, mythology, and case studies are but a few of the means by which positive asymmetry is presented. The technique is effective and nearly makes the reader forget exactly what the ontological status of a positive asymmetry actually is. It is of course a social phenomenon, but of what sort? And what does that mean? It is no doubt an interactive feedback effect of particular social forms and cognitive architecture, but the dynamics are fuzzy and one gets confused trying to track the deliberate modulations between “best” or “worst” being used as (1) normative evaluations relative to human welfare and (2) descriptive accounts of classification membership. Consider an admittedly glib counter example to Cerulo’s example taken from competitive diving. Cerulo discusses quality metrics with regard to competitive diving, but what is a “worst case dive” given (1) the diver performs the dive exceptionally well but suffers a heart attack upon such exertion or (2) a diver decides to withdraw from the competition because he feels he needs rest. Cerulo’s account cannot distinguish because the unit of analysis is never clearly defined.

So one question inevitably emerges, how do you know when you are observing an asymmetry? Thinking back to the Evelyn Waugh quote above, there is no clear objective synchronic measure by which one might determine the relative position of some response. Worst cases can always be worse, and best cases better.

The four case studies Cerulo provides don’t seem to help. For example, in chapter six Cerulo discusses Exceptions to the Rule, one such being the Phoenix document that warned of the 9/11 attack. Cerulo attributes the failure of adequate response to the institutionally structural positive asymmetry, though she notes that the administration was distracted by establishing strategic National Missile Defense (NMD), an action undertaken, if mistakenly, to prevent a clearly worse scenario. The problem, then, was not one of asymmetry, but of improper risk assessment. Unfortunately, an asymmetry analyses can only be performed ex post facto, which invites the question, “How is this theory falsifiable?” An example of a failure mode despite negative asymmetry would go a long way to outlining the extent to which her argument operates, lest it be regarded as an inverse tautology where positive outcomes must equal negative asymmetry.

The book closes with both an account of the structural attributes inhibiting or cultivating negative asymmetry and a tentative plan for achieving balanced perspectives in organizations. If one accepts the premises that (1) positive and negative asymmetry describe actual phenomena and (2) these phenomena are causally decisive, then one will find her propositions interesting to ponder, though interest alone may not suffice to traverse the inferential distance between her data and her proposals. In all, this book tackles an important topic of interest to those in the cognitive, political, and social sciences though ultimately readers may find themselves less than satisfied. A less ambitious project, or more narrowly constrained subject matter, may have permitted a more precise understanding of the relationship between cognition and culture relative to quality evaluation.