S. Atran "Classifying Nature Across Cultures"

Introduction: An Anthropological Perspective

How do people in different cultures think about the world? This has been a difficult question to answer. "One apparent obstacle to progress has been the theoretical bias to weight the importance of scientific thinking over common-sense thought and belief." Atran takes strong issue against this bias. Basic move: scientific bias is methodologically bad! "All this is not to suggest that scientific method has no place in cross-cultural study. On the contrary, only carefully controlled elicitation or experimentation allows for reliable replication of findings, which focuses comparison and interpretation so that knowledge can be progresively accumulated. It is just that rigorours testing procedures alone do not disallow an ethnocentric bias in the experimental paradigm itself from skewing the interpretation of results."

Folk Biology

Atran starts with a rationalist stance, and an interest in classifying animals and plants. "The human mind appears to be endowed with domain-specific schemata, that is, with fundamentally distinct ways of thinking about the world."

The Concept Of Folk Species

People do not think about the world in the same way as do scientists. Categorization of an organism is driven by presumptions about the nature of the world. "Causal presumptions to the effect that the living world categorically divides into well-bounded types, regardless of the deree of morphological variation that may actually exist or be observed within or between different kinds." Importantly, though, categorization used by people maps well onto the notion of biological species.

Even children use relatively abstract properties to ID something as a living thing: "closed two-dimensional figures that move irregularly across a screen, have clusters of symmetrical and repetively drawn `insides', and have irregular protruding parts."

Is such categorization innate? "The cognitive impetus that drives the learner to this `naive' appreciation of the relationship between a largely unknown (and perhaps unknowable) `genotype' and its various `phenotypic' expressions is likely to be a naturally selected endowment of evolution." This is consistent with Atran's rationalism.

Children and adults assume that animate categories have characteristics "by nature". "For example, people who have a category for tigers generally believe that tigers are quadrupedal animals that roar and have stripes and tawny fur because of their intrinsic species-nature. Nonetheless, most people haven't the foggiest idea of the underlying causal mechanisms that are actually responsible for the tiger's legs, roar, stripes, and fur." Importantly, such assumptions are *not* made for artifacts!

All humans classify animals and plants into folk species. These species are useful for understanding local situations, and making local predictions. "But from a scientific vantage, the concept of folk species is woefuly inadequate for capturing the graded relationships that characterize the evolution of species over geologically vast dimensions of time and space."

Folk Taxonomy

Folk species are fit into a hierarchy. Many different cultures exhibit a number of special purpose hieararchies. Recent work, though, has revealed a *universal* general purpose taxonomy! "This `default' folk-biological taxonomy, which serves as an inductive compendium of biological informatioin, is composed of a fairly rigid hierarchy of inclusive classes of organisms, or taxa." Taxa are mutually exclusive. General levels of this universal hierarchy: folk kingdom --> life form --> folk species --> folk subspecies.

"Many comparisons between folk-biological systems are based on analysis of a specious level of folk taxonomy, called the level of `terminal contrast'. Terminal contrast occurs between those named groupoings which include no additional named groupings." There is little systematic relation between terminal folk taxa and scientific taxa. Better move is to base comparison on notion of rank, but this is much more difficult to do.

"Ranking is a cognitive mapping that places living-kind categories in a structure of absolute levels, which may be evolutionarily designed to correspond to fundamentally different levesl of reality." Different ranks involve paying attention to different kinds of information to make a classification.

"By far the majority of taxa in any folk-biological classification belong to the level of the folk species. It is this level that people in most societies privilege when they see and talk about biological discontinuities." But Rosch found that folk species is not basic level for Americans! "Cross-cultural evidence suggests that the most basic level in Rosch's sense is a variable phenomenon that shifts as a function of general cutlural significance and individual familiarity and expertise." Atran describes a degeneration of folk biology in urban societies. ....BUT.... notion of rank still applies to these urban societies, based on inferences made about categories! "Thus, both Americans and Itza are much more likely to infer that, say, oak trees have a disease (or a given enzyme, protein, etc.) that white oak trees have, than to infer that trees have a disease that oak trees have."

"Taxonomic essentialism is the cognitive principle that recursively weds the presumption that each living kind has an underlying teleological nature to the ranking of living kinds in groups under groups."

"There seems to be a unversal, a priori presumption that species constitute `natural kinds' by virtue of their special (initially unknown and perhaps unknowable) teleological natures, tand that species further group naturally into ranked taxonomies. This spontaneous arrangement of living things into taxonomies of essential kinds thus constitutes a prior set of constraints on any and all possible theories about the causal relations between living kinds." Atran now moves to cross-cultural data to make this point.

A Comparison With Itza Maya Folk Biology

"The Itza are the last Maya Indians native to the Peten tropical forest....the categorical structure of Itza folk biology differs little from that of any other folk-biological system, including that which initially gave rise to systematics."

First result of Atran's study was that "the individual folk-biological taxonomies of Itza and students from rural Michigan are all more or less competent expressions of comparably robuts cultural models of the biological world."

A second interesting result was that exposure to science had little effect on the taxonomies generated by Michigan students.

Third result: American students (deferentially) assume taht a surprising finding reported by scientists is, first, a surprising regularity withing the natural domain (that is, the taxonomy) itself. ... By contrast, Itza do not theoretically presume that each life form has a lawlike causal unity, such that every folk species within that life form instantiates that underlying causal pattern to an equal degree." (NB: Doesn't this speak against universality??)

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