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Human Cultures through the Scientific Lens

Pascal Boyer

7. The ideal of integrated social science

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Introductory Note

1This essay starts with the question of why the discipline of cultural anthropology is marginal in public debates, when it should and might be central. (I provide data that may seem dated, but the trends described here have if anything become stronger.) The diagnosis is that this is a self-inflicted wound—and perhaps more interestingly, I try to describe how some kinds of social science do contribute to public discourse.

2But this is not intended as a series of recommendations for anthropologists. To understand why, we must keep in mind a simple distinction between disciplines and intellectual projects. Disciplines are associated with university departments, teaching appointments, professional associations, etc. There is a discipline of anthropology, in that sense, in the same way as chemistry or biology. Intellectual projects are about a set of questions and methods. One example of such a project is the idea of explaining the diversity of human cultures in the context of the unity of human motivations and mental capacities. This was a central project for many (not all) professional anthropologists of the twentieth century. But the project of course existed long before that, in the works of Montesquieu or Ibn Khaldun, and many others before and after them. So the idea of explaining cultures in terms of human nature pre-existed the profession of anthropology, and persists, nowadays, largely outside professional anthropology, being pursued by people labeled biologists, linguists or economists, as well as historians in some cases.

3This evolution is not uncommon. Projects can migrate into or out of disciplines. The idea of constructing mathematical models for genetic evolution was first handled by professional mathematicians like Fisher, and only gradually became central to the discipline of biology. The arrival of some projects and departure of others is the reason why most academic disciplines, like the ship of Theseus, are incrementally modified to such an extent that in some cases nothing remains of the original set of ideas or methods.

4In this essay, I try to describe the separation between professional anthropology (the discipline) and the goal of explaining the diversity of human cultures in terms of our common human nature (the project). This does not entail that actual anthropologists should abandon their current pursuits and join my favorite project—although I of course wish my tribe will increase and prosper. No, the only negative comment on the discipline of (cultural) anthropology is that it tends to create its own intellectual isolation.

5What matters, then, are the projects. At the end of the chapter, I sketch a version of a research program that was advocated and implemented by many before me—a cognitive explanation of human cultures that is based on evolutionary principles (Boyd & Richerson, 1985; Sperber, 1985; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). I described the main achievements of that research program in some detail elsewhere (Boyer, 2018).

6Just as they crisscross or transcend disciplines, intellectual projects also ignore such common divisions as that between the sciences and the humanities, or Natur- and Geisteswissenschaften, which are descendants of those highly misleading and highly persistent distinctions between nature and culture, innate and acquired traits, etc. These segregation principles do not make much sense, as social sciences continue to become closely integrated, gradually realizing the ideal of consilience described by E.O. Wilson (1998).



Boyd, R., & Richerson, P.J. (1985). Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Boyer, P. (2018). Minds Make Societies. How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sperber, D. (1985). Anthropology and Psychology: Towards an Epidemiology of Representations. Man, 20, 73–89.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & et al. (Eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. (pp. 19–136). New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. London: Little Brown and Company.


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