Keynote Lecture – ‘What is the Human Mind Designed for?’ By Roy F. Baumeister

27 10 2009

Baumeister PolaroidSpeaker: Professor Roy F. Baumeister (Florida State University)

Full title: Human Nature and Culture: What is the Human Mind Designed for?

Disciplines: Psychology

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6 responses

28 10 2009
Jerry Suls

This really is an excellent talk.
I assume you have looked at the recent anthropology monograph about the role of cooking and brain size in hominids. It took a a bit of a nasty beating in the NY Review of Books, but nonetheless seems consistent with some of your arguments.
Do you anticipate any disagreement from dolphin advocates? Do they a culture?
To be fanciful for a moment- should we expect cultural ET’s to be more exceptional than social ET’s somewhere (or were somewhere) in the university?

28 10 2009
Eileen Joy

Roy: thanks very much for this talk, which I found fascinating primarily for its emphasis on maintaining a kind of line between “social” and more “cultural” animals. Obviously, for a very long time now, in *many* disciplines within the humanities and social sciences [and even the more so-called "hard" sciences, such as biology and chemistry, etc.], there have been longstanding debates and conversations about what defines the “human” against [and often over] the “animal,” and it is clear from your talk [and also from my own wide reading in humanist and other disciplines] that this so-called divide has been collapsed for quite a while now. Yes, humans are animals [who disputes this today?--and yet, the question of difference remains imperative in many disciplines, as you point out], and the more interesting question becomes: what kind, as opposed to other kinds? On some level, it is simply intuitive that each species is distinct from each other species in terms of construction of mind/body, social and other habits, modes of habitation and communication, etc., and yet, listening to your talk, I couldn’t help but feel that the emphasis on maintaining some kind of line between what is “social” versus what is “cultural” in some ways re-capitulates the older division between “animal” and “human,” and I wasn’t sure if it was really holding for me. I would have to think about this some more, but following your own definitions and distinctions for the two descriptors, I could think of some animal groups that are social and also “cultural,” just not “cultural” in the same way as humans. You are far and away more the expert than I in this matter, but I was curious as to whether or not you yourself see any bleed-through between how you yourself are maintaining critical differences between “social” and “cultural” animals. And I was thinking, too, prompted by your talk: perhaps all animals are both social and cultural in varying degrees and the question of the human, then, becomes one of acceleration of degrees–all the ways in which we have developed both social and cultural modes of being/living at highly accelerated rates that are somehow connected to our physical construction and evolution of our structures of mind/psychology that might have something to do with the unique ways in which our body-structure interacted with particular environments, etc. I’m just rambling here, but this is also to say that your talk was extremely productive for revisiting all sorts of historically dense questions about the development of human society and culture in relation to the development of other species.

28 10 2009
Eileen Joy

Roy: another thing I wanted to add here is that, if the distinctions we might want to maintain between “social” and “cultural” are not as solid as they might first appear [and I assume this is a distinction that is already contestable within different fields that take as one of their chief concerns the study of the development and evolution of non-human species], then how do we ultimately account for what might be called the “specialness” of humans?

29 10 2009
Roy Baumeister

Responding to Jerry: I think you mean the Wrangham book on cooking. I read (other) reviews of that book and have it on my shelf to read, once I get through some other things. The core idea seems quite profound: cooking was a big boost to human life, improving survival and reproduction by multiple means. It takes more energy to digest raw than cooked food, so by cooking the food, the energy benefit is greatly increased. But cooking requires culture, which is why other species (though they like food when we cook it!) have not managed to master cooking.
The beginnings of culture have been found in several dozen other species. But no one has made it central to life as we have.
Regarding the fanciful comment — did you mean universe rather than university? (Either comment could be fanciful…!) But yes, I think being cultural is an advanced way of being social, so cultural animals are a subset (and I think a relatively rare and privileged one) of social animals.

29 10 2009
Roy Baumeister

Responding to Eileen: Your comments highlight two seemingly contradictory facts that somehow have to be accepted and appreciated. First, humans are truly animals, and in that sense we resemble all the others. And second, there are some things that are remarkably different about us. This very discussion is one example of several things that only humans (at least on this planet) do: we use electrical technology and written language to exchange abstract ideas about ourselves based on scientific research accumulated over centuries.
So my explanation has been that we are indeed animals, but we took some of the abilities that other animals have and developed them to a greater degree, which enabled us to start doing these new, cultural sorts of things much more than any others. The difference in culture is, again, a matter of degree, because some other species (though not all that many, really) seem to be able to have small bits of culture. Yet the difference in degree is extreme. Most cultural animals do a couple minor cultural things now and then, which make a tiny difference in their lives. Culture permeates everything we do. So in a sense what sets us apart is a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference, but that quantitative difference is quite extreme. Start with language. If a person could master the communicating of apes or dolphins, probably this would be fun to ‘talk’ with them for about an hour or two, but it would become unimaginably boring and constraining to have one’s thoughts limited to that for very long.

5 09 2011
Gunnar

Wow! This is extremely interesting. I really enjoyed it. Thanks

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