There are many ways to study human minds: psychologists probe them inside the lab; ethnographers observe them in their environment. At the Minds and Traditions research group (“the Mint”), human cognition will be studied in a different way: by looking at traditions and their history. Human traditions can be seen as long transmission chains: enduring legends, symbols, songs or alphabets have passed through thousands of different minds. They should reflect these minds’ common preferences and biases. The Mint will mine the information carried by the deep history of human traditions, to test cognitive hypotheses in novel ways. The group will combine experimental methods with hypotheses drawn from cultural evolution, and data from quantitative cultural history. Cognitive scientists devise experiments to identify mental mechanisms, but they do not know how these mechanisms come together in real life. Cultural history is in a better position to tell us that, but it is difficult to exploit, because each historical data point is a node in a web of cultural influences—not an independent event. Evolutionary tools will allow us to solve this problem, with cultural phylogenies and other models of diffusion.
The Mint will put a focus on one question that is crucial to the study of cultural transmission: the evolution of graphic codes and the rise of writing. All humans can communicate with sounds (or gestures) that encode information in a standardised way, using the same code in a wide variety of domains—the same language from cooking to metaphysics. Yet most human beings never used permanent images in that way: there was no all-purpose standard code for graphic communication. Many societies used graphic codes, but they were ad hoc, and used in a few contexts only. All-purpose graphic codes emerged only slowly and recently, at first for very small numbers of users. Intriguingly, these all-purpose codes almost always derive from a natural language, which one needs to learn in order to use the script. We do not know why writing—the most important cultural innovation since language—took the form that it did, nor why it took so long for it to appear. At the Minds and Traditions Research Group, this enigma will be tackled, putting to use all the fields of cognitive science (from linguistic pragmatics to visual cognition) to shed light on the evolution of graphic communication.
The Mint’s team leader, Olivier Morin, is a researcher in theoretical cognitive anthropology. After a PhD at the Paris École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, devoted to the study of cultural transmission, he has held research positions in Central Europe, at the Central European University in Budapest and the KLI Institute (Klosterneuburg). His book, How Traditions Live and Die (Oxford University Press) was published in December 2015.
The group will be joined (in the spring of 2016) by two post-docs: Piers Kelly, a linguistic anthropologist whose work focuses on the creation of novel writing systems in the Asia-Pacific area; and James Winters, an empirical linguist who creates artificial languages in laboratory settings and also studies how real language behaves, with quantitative tools.