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Project description

This project aims to exploit the critical mass developed at Durham around the interplay of cognitive and cultural evolution, to extend its international reach, develop wider connections, across disciplines, with the goal of generating large-scale research programmes and funding. 

Primary participants

Principal Investigators:

Professor Robert Barton, Department of Anthropology,

Dr Zanna Clay, Department of Psychology,

A series of 4 half-day workshops held in the IAS (Cosin's Hall), aimed at developing an IAS major project application.

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The distinctiveness of human cognition, behaviour and culture has long been a source of fascination among scholars and laypeople alike. Historically, Darwin’s view was that the difference between humans and non-human species was one of “degree, not of kind”; however, a century and a half later, this principle is still vigorously contested, with culture playing a central role in the debate. It is inescapable that complete understanding of the human mind and of the processes generating, sustaining and diversifying cultures, are intertwined.  Beyond this, there is little consensus about the evolution of and interrelationships between mind and culture.  The PIs propose that this is largely because of a failure of traditional cognitive ontologies, and that major advances in understanding the human mind, how it evolved, and how it is manifested in technology, culture and communication, will require radical revision. Such an overhaul requires broad consilience of the sort that can be created only by interdisciplinary discourse and exploration, sufficiently ambitious to set the parameters for multiple lines of future investigation, involving science, social science, philosophy and the arts. The specific focus will be on the evolution and significance of syntactical organization, which underpin so much of human endeavour.  The hypothesis is that the capacity for the complex serial ordering of behaviour, whether in tool construction, grammar, narrative, music or social interaction, is a key attribute of the human species.  The implies that syntactical structure is found not only in language but is a hallmark of all human activity. Thus, for example, the syntactical features of sentences may be echoed in the formal structure of literary narratives. Whatever it is that permits humans to comprehend and execute syntactically organised actions must have enhanced social learning and provided the cognitive preconditions for the essentially limitless efflorescence of human cultural forms. Currently, theories of cultural evolution employ a limited definition of culture as “socially learned information”; this is useful insofar as it can be applied to a wide range of species and hence provide a comparative framework, but by itself does not adequately address the way that information is organised, integrated and recombined. Although approaches such as structuralism in anthropology and linguistics, concepts such as universal grammar, and formalist analysis in narratology, do focus on structure and generative rules; they fail to account for cultural transmission and the processes generating diversity. This Development project would address this critical gap, creating new synergies between hitherto disparate approaches and between disciplines.  Ultimately, the broader aims are to develop new interdisciplinary synergies and new research directions in cognitive science, comparative psychology and cultural evolution. The project will address a looming ontological crisis in cognitive science – which is also a huge opportunity for interdisciplinary work - caused by an overlapping set of issues (for example, questions over the heuristic value of traditional categories of cognitive and emotional processes, and a lack of theoretical coherence in broader organising concepts such as ‘modularity’).  The Project Team is particularly interested in how evolutionary perspectives and notions of embodiment and ‘neural re-use’ can inform ontological considerations, and in building bridges between scientific and humanities approaches to deepen understanding of the role and nature of syntactical and narrative structures. The project will bring together a wide variety of disciplines around this theme to identify parallels in thinking and potentially productive areas of common endeavour.

Critical mass at Durham will be exploited around the interplay of cognitive and cultural evolution, to extend its international reach and to develop wider connections, spanning many disciplines, with the ultimate goal of generating large-scale research programmes and funding.

A series of 4 half-day workshops will be held in the IAS (Cosin's Hall), aimed at developing an IAS major project application

  • Workshop 1: Introduction, potential synergies between disciplines, the notion of syntactical structure as an organising theme.

  • Workshop 2: The philosophy, cognitive science, computational features and comparative psychology of syntax.

  • Workshop 3:  Syntactical structures at different levels of organization in literature, music and other cultural domains.
  • Workshop 4:  Overview, draft IAS Major project application; list potential VFs; scope/outline collaborative target article on comparative cognitive ontology.

The primary aim of this IAS Development Project is to scope and develop an application for an IAS Major Project (submission in January 2023) that would:

  • Document and understand how syntactical structures underpin human capacities and technological and aesthetic endeavours, including development of a theoretical framework linking syntactical structures across a wide variety of domains, such as literature, music, computation and cognitive processes 

  • Develop an interdisciplinary framework enabling us to reconsider and reconfigure cognitive ontologies in comparative psychology and cognitive science more broadly.

  • Result directly in a series of interdisciplinary publications.

  • Provide a foundation for major interdisciplinary funding applications that exploit the critical mass in Durham around cognition, culture and evolution