Culture in the brain

The Guardian has a dialogue between David Eagleman and Raymond Tallis in which the two authors debate the importance of culture as a constraint on behavior. This paragraph is from Eagleman:

Nonetheless, culture does leave its signature in the circuitry of the individual brain. If you were to examine an acorn by itself, it could tell you a great deal about its surroundings from moisture to microbes to the sunlight conditions of the larger forest. By analogy, an individual brain reflects its culture. Our opinions on normality, custom, dress codes and local superstitions are absorbed into our neural circuitry from the social forest around us. To a surprising extent, one can glimpse a culture by studying a brain. Moral attitudes toward cows, pigs, crosses and burkas can be read from the physiological responses of brains in different cultures.

I’ve just returned from the Consilience Conference organized by Joseph Carroll, a founder of the Darwinian school of literary analysis. I had some very interesting conversations about the way that culture may have come to influence the brains of ancient humans, and how gene-culture coevolution may have influenced a wide array of behavioral and cognitive traits of present humans. Over the next few weeks I’ll be pointing to current research by some of the participants and some other useful lines of inquiry.

Meanwhile, I have some catching-up to do here. Several recent papers have important consequences for how we think about the variation and population movements of the last 10,000 years. We can now dispense with 100-year-old speculation about migrations and movements because we have direct data from ancient populations. Razib Khan comments on last week’s papers about the Neolithic population of Scandinavia (“Facing the ocean”).