Research Approach

The Center for Mind and Culture adopts a non-partisan, bio-cultural approach to research at the nexus of mind and culture. Being non-partisan means we don’t take evaluative positions on the value of the mind-culture phenomena we study; we aim to understand not judge. Our bio-cultural approach takes a bit more explaining.

What is the bio-cultural approach? It is a way of shining a spotlight on the constructive intertwining of cultures, brains, and biology. It assumes that we will find no clear-cut, one-sided answer to the chicken-and-egg question that asks whether nature or nurture is primary in human life. Brains and cultures are involved in eons-long feedback cycles. Biology constrains culture but cannot dictate it. Culture profoundly influences behavior but does not get the last word. In fact, no one gets the last word – both biology and culture are continually talking. And through integrated research methodologies, we coax out the answers to the questions that matter.

Nature versus nurture

At the Center for Mind and Culture, we assume that religion is informed by both biological and cultural factors. This means that any theory related to areas at the nexus of mind and culture (e.g. human wellbeing, public policy, religion, or international security) that leaves out biology or culture will be partial at best, and downright misleading at worst. In emphasizing a bio-cultural approach in our research, we are tackling a longstanding problem in the contemporary academy: many social scientists are suspicious of biological reductionism, while biologists and neuroscientists are often dismissive of culture. We think both these positions are one-sided, and so we call for détente in this decades-long battle between nature and nurture. We lead by example, which means we have to be aggressively and rigorously balanced. At the Center, we affirm that biology is real – humans are not blank slates. But we also highlight that culture’s influence is enormous and pervasive, and that almost nothing cultural reduces to mere biology. In fact, in the real world, biology and culture mutually influence and are influenced by each other in an endless feedback cycle.

Models and theories that inform the bio-cultural approach

The bio-cultural approach is informed by a number of specific theoretical heuristics. Some current models of biology-culture interaction are informed by dual inheritance theory, niche construction theory, or gene-culture coevolution. Others focus on evolved social learning strategies driven by prestige or reputation, conformist bias, or ritual. Still others draw on game theory or cognitive scientific accounts of perceptual biases. Center researchers draw from all these models and more. In all that we do, we assume that the symbol-making capacity of human beings cannot be understood via cultural or brain mechanisms alone. We need both to understand such behaviors as religious ritual or the use of religious symbols.

Bio-cultural methods at work

Across projects, the Center is working to develop cutting-edge models of the biology-culture interaction by examining how the brain mediates cognitions; modeling the cultural dynamics that give rise to complex communities; studying the physiological effects of collective action; studying the causes of mental and physical healing; testing evolutionary models of the brain-group nexus; and employing life-history theory to make sense of the evolutionary pressures informing every aspect and stage of human life. Though current models of biology-culture interactions are still in their early stages, they are already indispensable for framing empirical and theoretical approaches to the mind-culture nexus as a bio-cultural phenomenon. This is why we draw from established methods while actively developing and testing innovative new models.

Drawing responsibly from the humanities

We also believe at the Center that it’s vital to ensure our own research models are constrained by data and interpretive insights from the relevant social scientific and humanities disciplines. The humanities are not just a pleasant side dish, to be sampled at our whim but ignored when we desire. The humanities disciplines furnish invaluable interpretive guides, rich ethnographic data, textual expertise, and historical conditioning. Each of these tools offers valuable constraints on and fodder for bio-cultural models. In our insistence that bio-cultural theories of the mind-culture nexus maintain contact with the insights of humanities disciplines, we keep the evolutionary and cognitive sciences of religion grounded in reality. We simultaneously demonstrate the indispensability of the humanities for producing the best scientific interpretations of phenomena within the mind-culture nexus.

How the humanities can inform the hard sciences

Co-Founding Director Patrick McNamara is expert in cutting-edge imaging techniques and methodologies. But one of the most fruitful research insights of his career came from reading philosophy. Urged on by Co-Founding Director Wesley Wildman and Director Robert C. Neville, Dr. McNamara delved into philosophical texts that brought up questions of value, or axiology – a subject usually avoided in the sciences. After all, science is supposed to be about objective facts, not subjective values.  But in Dr. McNamara’s lab, questions of axiology gradually inspired a hard research agenda. The neurotransmitter dopamine is crucially implicated in the neurological processes that assign value to stimuli, determining what’s important for the organism and what can be ignored. Dopamine-based reward and aversion signaling is centrally implemented in these processes.  It may be that a wide variety of cultural processes influence reward signaling to affect our value priorities. The question of how the brain assigns value, or salience, to environmental stimuli led Dr. McNamara to explore the riddles of the dopamine system – a project that guides his research today, influencing his hypotheses about religion and the neurological bases of axiology. All because of some dabbling in the humanities.