Ontic Risk and the Science of Diversity | Cultural Evolutionary Theory | The Metaphysics of Culture

Ontic Risk and the Science of Diversity

How should we measure and count the world’s cultural diversity? And if the world’s cultures are in decline—as many suggest—what should we do about it?

One problem in studying cultural diversity (and proxy measures, like linguistic diversity) is that cultures are complex entities. And like many complex entities they can be ontologized in different ways. So, for instance, there is the cultural area ontology of early anthropology, the trait pool ontology of sociology and cultural evolution, and the identity-based ontology of Indigenous studies and political philosophy. Yet the fact that there are multiple ontologies that could be adopted in any given case raises the prospect of ontic risk.

Ontic risk, as I develop the concept, concerns the authoritative placement of entities into an ontology. This is risky when there are ontological choices (choices between different ontologies) that can generate harm. In work under development, I motivate ontic risk as a distinct kind of risk, focussing in particular on how this risk interacts with the epistemic authority of science. Future work will show how this concept can illuminate practices in social science, highlight novel problems in data ethics, and serve as a foundation for thinking about collaboration and community participation in science.

Cultural Evolutionary Theory

Selection of a larger depiction of a scalogram of cultural complexity From Robert Carniero (1970) “Scale Analysis, Evolutionary Sequences, and the Rating of Cultures.” 

Though popularized by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s, the study of cultural evolution is now a big tent enterprise and has moved beyond simple memetic models of cultures. Contemporary work on cultural evolution generates rich interdisciplinary research—combining multiple sources of evidence, models, and analytical tools—exploring how culture has shaped human cognition and sociality in the past and present. In particular, many working in cultural evolution have pointed to capacities for “cumulative culture” as what distinguishes humans from non-human animals. But what is cumulative culture? Does it really set humans apart?

These questions are the jumping off point for investigations into the cumulative culture concept and, potentially, what should replace it. My work has argued that the concept lumps together a range of different metrics and operationalizations, ignores important enabling conditions, and may obscure our understanding of cultural evolutionary processes. Along with colleagues in the Sweden, I have worked to provide an alternative approach to conceiving of cumulative culture, and with colleagues in the UK, to consider the principles that might underwrite a better taxonomy of cultural processes.

The Metaphysics of Culture

Image author: Johnson Camerface (Flickr) CC NC-BY-SA 2.0.

Many political, normative, and empirical projects assume that the culture concept is a sortal term: cultures (or “cultural groups”) are counted as distinct entities. This assumption is key to UNESCO’s declaration that cultural diversity is an analog to biological diversity, the Supreme Court of Canada’s “Integral to a Distinctive Culture Test”, and the use of large historical databases modeling in efforts to reconstruct human history. But sortal cultures—like all sortals—require criteria that determine what cultural groups are and describe how to distinguish countable instances. But what are these? And could such criteria even be developed?

Unfortunately, the metaphysics of culture have been waylaid by an unconvincing critique. This claims that any and all accounts of sortal cultures will be essentialist, and as a result, inappropriate for normative or empirical projects. I argue, however, that this critique and its implications have been vastly overstated. In work under preparation, I argue that there are a range of metaphysical positions that can underpin sortal cultures. Nonetheless (and in other forthcoming work), I suggest we should not ignore the political ideas motivating the critique, which rightly directs attention to the way that scientists and ethnographers construct the criteria for sortal cultures.