Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cultural epigenetics; where you live affects how you think

In reasoning about nature, kids who live where they see it think differently about animals than kids who don't. This study looked at urban kids in Chicago and rural European and American Indian kids in Wisconsin.
For decades, the consensus was that as young children begin reasoning about the biological world, they adopt an "anthropocentric" stance, favoring humans over non-human animals when it comes to learning about properties of animals. ... The results were striking -- while young urban children revealed a human-centered pattern of reasoning, the rural European-American and Native American children did not.
The authors also talk about the different notions of "alive" in Indian and European cultures, but the difference in thinking they point to is rural vs. urban.

I wish I knew more about the actual study. I suppose I could find it.  I wonder if they just showed kids Tom and Jerry cartoons and then asked them if cats really dress like hep cats and chase mice with cleavers.

But it sounds to me like scaffolding. You bring what you have, and that affects how you receive what you encounter. It also sounds like a cultural version of Lamarckian evolution, where early experience changes the mind's phenotype. (You realize that I intend this as a metaphor, don't you?) That makes it a sort of cultural epigenetics. Stuff that happens to you because of where you live affects the way you think.

I was in junior high when I first discovered evolution by natural selection. I immediately understood it, and I immediately knew it was true. In high school civics class, I remember a discussion of Herbert Spencer. I wonder if they still study Spencer in 12th grade. Spencer's big idea was cultural Darwinism, by which he meant that fit people become rich, and unfit people become poor; that's how you tell fit from unfit.

I remember my mind wandering. I was applying natural selection to cultural phenomena, specifically fads. They come into existence more or less randomly, and the ones that fit our culture last, while the others die off. (The similarity of this idea to Dawkins' memes has not escaped me.) And this issue sounds a lot like my version of cultural Darwinism.

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