The Cultural Evolution of Social Cognition

Workshop with Richard Menary

26Oct2017 13:00 - 17:00


Speakers: Regina Fabry (University of Giessen), Manuel Gustavo Isaac (SNSF & University of Amsterdam), Julian Kiverstein (University of Amsterdam), Richard Menary (Macquarie University), Marc Slors (Radboud University)

Date and location:

26 October 2017 from 13:00 till 17:00
Room E1.07, Oude Manhuispoort 4-6, 1012 CN Amsterdam


Registration is open to master students, PhD's and related professionals practicing in the field.


The course will be given in English. Participants are advised that knowledge of scientific terms in English is required.

How to apply

Registration is required by sending an e-mail to


Dr. Regina E. Fabry (Justus Liebig University of Giessen)
"The cultural evolution of cognitive normativity" 

According to Menary (2007, 2010, 2015), the enculturated interaction with symbol systems is governed by socially distributed cognitive norms. Following up on this proposal, I will offer a new perspective on the history of symbol systems by suggesting that their properties culturally co-evolved with cognitive normativity. Like other types of normativity, cognitive normativity enables and constrains collaborative and co-ordinated practices in the cognitive niche. It is special, however, because it has opened up a qualitatively new possibility space for the completion of cognitive tasks in the course of cultural evolution.

Dr. Manuel Gustavo Isaac (SNSF & University of Amsterdam)

Dr. Julian Kiverstein (University of Amsterdam)
"Enculturation and cognitive transformation: A third-wave perspective"

The hypothesis of the extended mind claims that entities that are located in the environment external to individuals can sometimes count as parts of their minds. Thinking is accomplished not only by processes taking place inside of the brain but also in part by the external tools and technologies agents act upon. In his classic paper on the extended mind debate, Sutton (2010) shows how there are two "waves" of argument that have been given in favour of the extended mind. The first wave of arguments argued for the extended mind on the basis of equality of treatment. We shouldn't assess the cognitive status of a process or on the basis of where it takes place but instead on the basis of what it does - on the role it plays in guiding action. The second-wave of arguments (led by Sutton and Menary) emphasised the complementary but different contributions of internal biological processes and external, environmental elements and resources. The second-wave arguments claimed that the result of integrating internal and external elements in the right way is nothing short of a transformation of an agent's cognitive capacities. At the end of his paper Sutton also pointed to a possible third-wave of arguments that call into question the residual individualism of the previous two waves. In this talk I will take up this theme focusing on how to understand what is sometimes referred to as "internalisation", a concept drawn from the work of the developmental psychologist Vygotsky. Menary (2007) has argued that it is through the internalisation of cognitive practices such as writing or mathematical notational practices that onboard neural circuity acquires new "culturally specified functions". Menary labels this process of internalisation "enculturation". On his view of internalisation, the brain literally comes to encode cultural processes through a developmental process of neuronal transformation. I shall argue that internalisation isn't a matter of moving forms of knowledge enacted in cultural practices inside of the head of individuals. Instead the individual is reconfigured through the network of practices in which they participate. This process needs to be understood diachronically: it is only through ongoing participation in culturally-organised activities that the individual agent can be said to undergo cognitive transformation. 

Prof. Richard Menary (Macquarie University) 
"On the cultural evolution of social cognition"

Standardly the capacity for mindreading, reasoning about the mental states of others, is thought to be an evolved trait which is genetically inherited. Recently a number of Psychologists and Philosophers have proposed that mindreading is a culturally inherited trait (e.g. Heyes and Frith 2014). This paper goes a step further, it argues that social cognition culturally evolved in a staged progression, with mindreading as the most recent acquisition. Not only is social cognition dependent upon a broader set of traits than mindreading, but the social cognition ‘phenotype’ is acquired through a process of cultural canalisation. 

Prof. Marc Slors (Radboud University)
"Stylistic cultural inertia"

‘Cultural inertia’ is a label for the phenomenon that people tend to stick to their own culture, specifically when this culture is under pressure, for instance by the proximity of other cultures. The phenomenon is usually described and studied as the tendency to retain cultural beliefs and valuies. This talk is about inertia of cultural practices, traditions, etiquette, social rules, dress codes, architecture, design and the planning and styling of public space—which I will refer to as ‘stylistic conventions’. I will first briefly discuss one salient explanation for ‘stylistic cultural inertia’ (as I will call it) that can be derived from mainstream theorizing about cultural evolution. I will then argue that it has important shortcomings. Instead, I will propose an alternative explanation, according to which stylistic conventions allow us to offload cognition aimed at specific types of coordination that enable massive division of labour. The obvious evolutionary advantages of our fine-grained division of labour might then be used to explain our natural tendency to adopt stylistic conventions (as illustrated by e.g. experimental findings on overimitation) and hold on to them (as illustrated by the grim political reality of rising nationalism).

OMHP E1.07

  • Oudemanhuispoort

    Oudemanhuispoort 4-6 | 1012 CN Amsterdam
    +31 (0)20 525 3361

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Department of Philosophy

Published by  Faculty of Humanities