Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

An edited version of the paper given by Emma Cohen on 20 February 2009 at the Pitt Rivers Museum. It is hoped that a full version of the paper might be published.

Abstract: Despite plenty of criticism, Edward Tylor’s characterization of religion as minimally entailing “the belief in Spiritual Beings” has had much staying power in anthropology. Although scholars are now less concerned to offer generalizable definitions of what is and what is not religion, any scholarship in the thematic area of Anthropology of Religion will almost invariably entail consideration of the practices, beliefs, and material culture relating to spirits, souls, life-forces, selves, gods, and so on.
Recently, a novel explanatory approach to the generation, form, and spread of Spiritual Being concepts has emerged. Such explanatory concerns, of course, are old Tylorian chestnuts, which, some might say have long passed their sell-by date. Motivated by relevant, novel findings and methodological tools from neighbouring disciplines in the cognitive sciences, however, this scholarship does not merely offer novel frameworks or reinvented wheels. In this paper, this point will be argued, and relevant recent findings brought to bear on some of the formative concerns of modern social and cultural anthropology.

Animism and the 'Tylorian Echoes' of Cognitive Anthropology

In Primitive Culture (1871), Edward Tylor identifies as one of his main aims “to investigate the deep-lying doctrine of Spiritual Beings”. He takes animism to refer to “the general belief in spiritual beings” and is concerned to explain the emergence, evolution, and persistence of such beliefs in variable eras and cultural settings. Tylor’s broad evolutionary interests has led many to perceive his concern with origins to be about historical origins. In fact, his most cogent and prescient suggestions are perhaps more accurately appreciated as having to do with cognitive origins.

Tylor argued that people came up with concepts of souls and spirits in response to recurrent cognitive problems, i.e. problems about how best to represent the world around them. For example, what is it that makes the difference between a living body and a dead one? Tylor speculates that it was in response to such conceptual problems that the concept of the soul – “an animating, separable, surviving entity, the vehicle of personal existence”- came into being. Tylor places great store on what he calls the evidence of the senses and is interested in the psychological mechanisms whereby primitive (and civilized) philosophers arrive at this solution. Indeed, he seems to be surprised that human thinkers don’t think more about how they think!

“The savage thinker, though occupying himself so much with the phenomena of life, sleep, disease, and death, seems to have taken for granted, as a matter of course, the ordinary operations of his own mind. It hardly occurred to him to think about the machinery of thinking”.

He recognized the need for a theory of perception, and sees some promise in a new, emerging discipline:

“There has arisen an intellectual product whose very existence is of deepest significance, a ‘psychology’ which no longer has anything to do with ‘soul’ ”

Of course, the cognitive sciences as we know them today, didn’t really come into existence until the mid 20th century, and it was some time later that anthropologists began to appreciate their value for explaining culture in general, and religion in particular.

In 1980, finally the seed of a cognitive anthropology of religion was sown in Stewart Guthrie’s seminal paper in Current Anthropology, entitled “A Cognitive Theory of Religion”. This theory, which strikes at the heart of Tylor’s concerns with the universality of animism, was later elaborated in his 1993 book Faces in the Clouds.

Guthrie sees as central to religion, perhaps even definitive of religion, a cognitive predisposition to seeing human-like agency in the world. Insofar as religious thought is the kind of thought that is concerned with interpreting and influencing the world (and most reasoning probably is), anthropomorphism and animism play a very important role. Why should this be?

Guthrie claims that our capacity to detecting human-like agency in the world is wired for hyper-sensitivity. There are many false positives, because we are biased to interpret phenomena as humans, as other complex animals, or as their artifacts or traces. This bias is rooted in evolutionary problems to do with surviving in a complex, uncertain, and ambiguous world. It’s normally more profitable to your survival to perceive a rustling in the bushes as a predator or attacker than to perceive it as the wind. Make the wrong mistake once and you’ll not make it again.

Justin Barrett has developed this account, branding the cognitive mechanism responsible for this bias the Hypersensitive Agent Detection Device - HADD (2004). According to Barrett, belief in supernatural agents owes a lot to this humble piece of cognitive machinery. As Barrett claims,

“HADD is quick to find agency in the environment. This survival-enhancing disposition encourages the production of superhuman agent concepts in many situations and makes [supernatural] …agent concepts even more salient, believable, and likely to be spread by anchoring them to personal experiences”.

To echo Tylor: HADD is a core mechanism for the mediation of evidence to the senses – it is a tool by which we perceive and interpret the world.

What’s the evidence?

The people doing some of the most work on this fascinating subject at the moment are developmental psychologists.There is now convergent evidence that we have multiple perceptual sensitivities to potential signs of agency, and that these are among some of our earliest emerging components of cognition.

From infancy, humans distinguish between agents and objects. Amanda Woodward, for example, has shown in a series of experiments over the last 10 years that infants as young as 5 months old distinguish between agents and objects on the basis of apparent goal-directedness. She claims that her findings suggest that infants, like adults, see others’ actions not as raw physical movements but, rather, as movements organized by intentional relations between agents and their goals and objects of attention. Subsequent developmental studies suggest that a key factor infants are sensitive to when identifying agency is evidence of movement that violates inertial forces (e.g. the object can stop, start, and change direction of its own accord). Numerous experiments in the last half-century have shown how we continue to be perceptually sensitive to agent-like behavior on the basis of minimal cues through to adulthood. The agents in question may be simple line drawings of 2D shapes, or even tiny dots on a computer screen, but specific forms of movement and interaction with other objects can elicit rich mental state attribution (e.g. wanting, chasing, tricking, etc.). Some psychologists have even speculated that perhaps this whatever-it-is that makes an agent an agent is so salient that, under certain conditions, infants fail to see humans as physical objects. There is some evidence to support this proposal (e.g. evidence that infants do not attribute the same expectations of spatio-temporal continuity to humans as they do to inanimate objects, such as boxes).

These and other findings have led psychologist, Paul Bloom, to speculate that intuitive dualism is a default stance on the world. Souls and bodies are readily separable in human imagination, and our expectations about each are guided by two distinct sets of cognitive mechanisms. One that has to do with agency detection and attribution of mental states, such as intentions, beliefs, and so on. And the other that has to do with physical objects and the attribution of solidity, cohesion, spatio-temporal continuity and so on. These proposals put flesh on the bones of Tylor’s original argument: animist beliefs around the world are intuitive – i.e. they are largely the product of the spontaneous and unconscious operation of these mechanisms.

These combined findings potentially make considerable headway in contributing to Tylor’s original aim: to investigate the deep-lying doctrine of animism. Indeed, given Tylor’s intense interest in the origins of ideas, the foundations of social cognition, it is surprising that he and his questions have not been explicitly reconsidered in both the anthropological and the cognitive literature in light of the findings from the relatively new sciences of the mind.

What recent work in the cognitive sciences more broadly has begun to show us is that we have a suite of mental capacities and predispositions whose operation facilitates the emergence, spread, and development of certain kinds of agent concepts. In summary: HADD is hyper-sensitive to cues of agency in the environment – faces, traces, certain kinds of motion. We are particularly sensitive to agents as actors, with goals, desires, etc. Others’ actions are more than raw physical movement. We care about the goals. So ‘minds’ or mental states and dispositions are of particular salience in everyday life. But this is not necessarily a deliberate process. Detecting animacy is perceptual and therefore rapid and automatic Agency is readily conceived of as separable from bodies as well as attached to bodies – both living and non-living. Indeed, expectations about biological life and vitality may be handled by an entirely different cognitive mechanism.

In conclusion, in what broad sense does Tylor’s soul live on in cognitive anthropology?
• Identification of cross-culturally widespread and historically persistent forms of thought and practice
• A concern with the conditions from which they derive – causal explanation – a “science of culture”
• Explanation of recurrent and variable features ( e.g. connection with ethics and morality, their variable elaboration in different cultural contexts)
• The assumption that religious ideas are not God-given: religious doctrines and practices are “devised by human reason, without supernatural aid or revelation”
• The suggestion that their spread and persistence is not solely, or perhaps even primarily, the product of communication, but the product of individual level causal cognition, or, as Tylor put it, “They are doctrines answering in the most forcible way to the plain evidence of men’s senses, as interpreted by a fairly consistent and rational primitive philosophy” (429)
• That even if a concept may not be a widespread shared conviction, it may be readily intelligible across persons, populations and different cultural settings.

But there are some distinctions:
• No more “lower races” and “higher nations”
• There is now a recognition of the ‘new unconscious’ - reason as largely operative beyond conscious awareness and control
• Tylor relies on ethnographic and other descriptive report; cognitive anthropology relies more heavily on the cognitive sciences.

“Revisiting Victorian Anthropology?” I have no doubt that, had the cognitive sciences been around when Tylor was, his library would have been at least twice the size, and perhaps our Tylor Library too! The big questions are ripe for revisiting and perhaps even re-establishment as core concerns within the discipline of anthropology.

Here are some of the links Emma used to illustrate her paper:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRaM8xSwzc8 [What makes Morph, Morph? An illustration of identity continuity across radical bodily changes]

The next is not quite the illustration that Emma showed, because that is still in use in a research project, but it is similar:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZBKer6PMtM An example stimulus movie from Heider and Simmel's 1944 "Experimental study of social behavior" (Am. J. Psychol., 57, 243-249)

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