Cultural Practices Make Human Cognition

by Edwin Hutchins

8 October 2009

Many accounts of how humans became the creatures they are rely on speculations about changes in the neural architecture of the human brain. For example, Clark (2001, Ch 8) says, "The idea is that some relatively small neural (or neural/bodily) difference was the spark that lit a kind of intellectual forest fire. The brain is, let us assume, wholly responsible (courtesy, perhaps of some quite small tweak of the engineering) for the fulfillment of some precondition of cultural and technological evolution." While it is certainly possible and productive to study processes that are internal to individuals, cognitive outcomes, including category assignments, inferences, decisions, judgments, and so on, are often better understood as properties of the distributed cognitive system that includes objects, patterns, events, and other living beings in the setting in which human (and nonhuman) cognition takes place (Hutchins, 1995, 2006). The idea is that a good deal of contemporary thinking, and probably an even greater proportion of ancient thinking, happens in interaction of brain and body with world. This seems innocent enough and many people take it to mean simply that thinking is something that happens in the brain as a consequence of interaction with the world. That is not the claim being made here. The claim here is that, first and foremost, thinking IS interactions of brain and body with the world. Those interactions are not evidence of, or reflections of, underlying thought processes. They are instead the thinking processes themselves. Furthermore, for humans, the thinking processes that take place in the interactions of brain, body and world are typically organized by cultural practices.

Cultural practices are the things people do and their learned ways of being in the world. A practice is cultural if it exists in a cognitive ecology such that it is constrained by or coordinated with the practices of other persons. Virtually all external representations are produced by cultural practices. All forms of language are produced by and in cultural practices. Speaking is accomplished via discursive cultural practices. The specifics of each language require its speakers to attend to some distinctions and permit them to ignore others. This "thinking for speaking" implies that even low-level perceptual processes are often organized by cultural practices. Cultural practices include particular ways of seeing (or hearing, or feeling, or smelling) the world. Cultural practices are not cultural models traditionally construed as disembodied structural representations of knowledge. Rather they are fully embodied skills. Cultural practices organize the action in situated action.

If true, this approach to cultural practices has many implications. An obvious implication is that if two cognitive systems include different cultural practices, they can have dramatically different functional properties even when the brains and other physical resources in the system are identical. We are all familiar with this fact, and it is a primary motivation for educational activities . With respect to the emergence of modern human intelligence, this approach to cultural practices has some less obvious implications. First, because outcomes typically arise from the orchestration of capacities by practices, cognitive capacities cannot be inferred directly from outcomes. The mediation of the relation between capacities and outcomes by cultural practices also means that the evolutionary value of cognitive capacities cannot be inferred directly from the supposed utility of cognitive outcomes. The material and social world are structured by cultural historical processes in a cognitive ecology.

The fact that cognitive outcomes are often the product of interactions between persons (capacities orchestrated by cultural practices) with material and social world has methodological implications as well. The interpretation of cognitive capacities, as revealed by experimental methods, must be informed by an analysis of the cultural practices of experimentation. That is, because every experiment proceeds by the deployment of cultural practices in a richly structured material and social context, attributing the observed cognitive outcomes directly to the participants (subjects) is deeply problematic.

If cultural practices can transform cognitive systems, it means that the commonly assumed ordering of evolution and history can be rearranged (Ingold, 2000:392). Rather than assuming that biological evolution must have acted first to make our ancestors's brains capable of language and cultural processes, after which cultural history took over to produce the presently observed diversity of languages and cultures, it seems equally likely that the innovations that make modern thought possible were innovations in cultural practices. Once having arisen in the social world, of course, such changes would create new selective pressures to which biological evolution could respond (Strum,, 1997; Hutchins, 2006). Cultural practices organize the interactions of persons with their social and material surroundings. These interactions are the locus of inter-psychological processes. Culturally constituted inter-psychological processes change through historical time. They are also targets for internalization as intra-psychological processes. Intra-psychological processes set the selective pressures for the evolution of biological cognitive systems. Therefore, rather than imagining that "some relatively small neural (or neural/bodily) difference was the spark that lit a kind of intellectual forest fire" (Clark, 2001), it is equally likely that a series of small changes in cultural practices gave rise to new high level inter-psychological processes, which in turn shaped certain intra-psychological processes, and these in turn favored certain small neural or neural/bodily differences over other neural or neural/bodily differences. Adaptation to these selective pressures could lead to population-wide changes in neural or neural/bodily systems, which would in turn make possible new cultural practices. In this account, there is no reason to favor changes in the brain over innovations in cultural practices as drivers of primate cognitive evolution.

For more on this topic see: Hutchins, E. (2008) The role of cultural practices in the emergence of modern human intelligence Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2008) 363, 2011-2019 doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0003

Clark, A. 2001 Mindware: an introduction to the philosophy of cognitive science. New York: Oxford University Press. Flynn, J. R. 2007 What is intelligence? New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hutchins, E. 1995 Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hutchins, E. 2006 The Distributed Cognition Perspective on Human Interaction. In Roots of Human Sociality: Culture, Cognition and Interaction (eds., N. Enfield & S. Levinson), pp. 375-398. Berg Publishers: Oxford, UK.

Ingold, T. 2000 The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. New York: Routledge.

Strum, S. C., Forster, D., & Hutchins, E. 1997 Why Machiavellian intelligence may not be Machiavellian. In: Machiavellian intelligence II: Extensions and evaluations (eds. A. Whiten & R. Byrne), pp 50-85. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.