After introducing the new field of cultural evolution, we review a growing body of empirical evidence suggesting that culture shapes what people attend to, perceive and remember as well as how they think, feel and reason. Focusing on perception, spatial navigation, mentalizing, thinking styles, reasoning (epistemic norms) and language, we discuss not only important variation in these domains, but emphasize that most researchers (including philosophers) and research participants are psychologically peculiar within a global and historical context. This rising tide of evidence recommends caution in relying on one’s intuitions or even in generalizing from reliable psychological findings to the species, Homo sapiens. Our evolutionary approach suggests that humans have evolved a suite of reliably developing cognitive abilities that adapt our minds, information-processing abilities and emotions ontogenetically to the diverse culturally-constructed worlds we confront.
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While the evidence showing variation in the strength of these illusions across populations remains largely unchallenged, researchers working with nine newly-sighted children have argued that the default, pre-experience, visual calibration in humans generates some detectable susceptibility to the Mueller-Lyer and Ponzo illusions (Gandhi et al. 2015). This may well be the case, but our point is that the perception of, and associated strength of some illusions, varies across populations—not that all illusions are produced only by experience. Nevertheless, this study is beleaguered by relying on a tiny sample, reporting only a crude measure of illusion susceptibility, and failing to explore how long these nearly blind children were sighted earlier in their lives.
Of course, in Europe, we also observe that authority and tradition often implicitly or explicitly served as the justification for particular beliefs and practices. The claim that garlic can diminish the magnetic power of magnets, for example, was passed down over millennia primarily because great ancient Roman philosophers and naturalists wrote about it (Wootton 2016). When it was eventually questioned in the seventeenth century, as modern experimental science was taking shape, we still see a strong epistemic reliance on authority: “…yet I cannot believe that so many famous Writers who have affirmed this perperty of the garlick, could be deceived; therefore I think that they had some other kinde of Load-stone, then that which we have now.” (Ross 1652). Here, in an attempt to preserve the veracity of ancient writers, Ross invokes the auxiliary hypothesis that it must have been a different kind of load stone that the ancients were referring to. By contrast, the political theorist Hannah Arendt (1951, 1961) points out that one defining characteristic of modernity is the loss of authority. Similarly, Strevens argues that since the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, great emphasis has been placed on experience as the ultimate way to validate knowledge claims and as a result the appeal to other epistemic sources has declined (Wootton 2016).
Miller observed similar effects for prosocial situations, though dispositional attributions are generally less pronounced. See Heine (2012) for discussion.
Interestingly, Miller did find that a Christian community of Indians in Mysore did make more dispositional attributions (30%) than either lower or middle-class members of the Hindu majority. In fact, they were about halfway between the Hindu majority and Chicago. Several researchers have argued that some forms of Christianity encourage dispositional thinking (Cohen and Rozin 2001; Henrich 2020; Li et al. 2012).
Interestingly, there may be genetic variation that influences our ability to perceive specific regions of the color spectrum and this may impact the presence of color terms for ‘blue’ (Brown and Lindsey 2004).
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Henrich, J., Blasi, D.E., Curtin, C.M. et al. A Cultural Species and its Cognitive Phenotypes: Implications for Philosophy. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-021-00612-y