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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 392-397 ( 18 September )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/plotkin.html

Book Review

The Imagined World Made Real: Towards a Natural Science of Culture
by Henry Plotkin
London: Allen Lane: The Penguin Press. ISBN 0-71-399408-8

Reviewed by Thomas E. Dickins, Brain and Cognition Research Group, Division of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham NG1 4BU, United Kingdom.

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Human beings like to spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a human being. Indeed, this self-absorption could act as a criterion to determine species membership. More often than not efforts in this domain result in statements about how different humans are from other primates and other creatures more generally. Abilities such as language and higher order reasoning are called upon to support this distinction and very frequently the phenomenon of culture is invoked.

Culture is the big issue in human studies and the term provokes a number of different intellectual turns and definitions. A glance at the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary provides a range from the “cultivation or development of the mind” through “a particular form, stage, or type of intellectual development or civilization in a society” and finally to “the distinctive customs, achievements, products, outlook etc. of a society or group”. Then, of course, there are notions of high-culture that allude to ideas of enlightenment and refinement, and low-culture that appeal to a sense of the banal and every-day. A highly cultured individual is one who appreciates historically grounded and oblique expressions of sentiment, such as those found in a Mozart opera, and a less cultured individual feels that popular music appeals to their existential anguish. But we all know how spurious some of these distinctions might be, especially if we have seen Milos Forman’s film “Amadeus”, or have ever listened to Leonard Cohen.

Beneath all of these definitional twists and turns lies a core concept and one that Henry Plotkin has focused on in his recent book. This is the view of culture as both ideational and the product of a collection of minds. More simply put, the baseline of culture is a collection of shared knowledge and beliefs passed on through non-biological means. How you determine what level of sharing to focus upon - societal, familial etc - is a moot point, but the key is that culture is firmly grounded in the social world. As such this has led to a virtual hegemony of social scientists and assorted literati over any academic analysis of culture, both groups divvying up the job up between discussing the sociological impact of culture and the fine details of cultural objects. Sociologists, for example, like to ponder the structure-agency problem. Simply put this is the problem of whether to argue for an understanding of human beings in terms of the individual, an individual who has agency in the social world, or in terms of social forces that are more than the product of individual actions. If you do the former you run the risk of a specific form of determinism in explanations of culture - culture as the product of individual decisions, a simple output. Equally, if you run too far the other way you end up arguing for ungrounded cultural forces shaping up individual psychology, which is an equally deterministic position and both views have socio-political entailments.

As a cynical bystander to sociology and its discontents I would be tempted to observe that the problem with the structure-agency debate is that it allows itself no real points of reference from outside against which to measure it, which is often a problem when subject areas become dominated by a small number of approaches. Such arguments appear locked in a static discussion of human processes that lacks the crucial dimension of long historical time, and processes are, after all, about action over time. Plotkin’s innovation is to realise that the sustained synthesis that psychology is undergoing, due to its reawakening to evolutionary theory, has massive implications for this debate. Evolutionary theory, as Gould noted, is an historical discipline. Plotkin is not alone in this innovation, and I am sure he would modestly flag his colleagues’ work especially Steven Pinker’s (2002) latest offering on human nature, but Plotkin does clearly lay out the stall for this particular project in his book.

What exactly does this reference to time amount to? A quick scan of non-human species reveals that there really is no equivalent of human ideational culture. That is not to say that there are not shared practices that are passed on through non-genetic means to subsequent generations. Most undergraduate psychology students have heard about oyster-catchers “teaching” their young specific mussel-opening techniques peculiar to that group and their region. This kind of shared practice is not grounded in conceptual learning but more likely explicable in terms of imitation (which is not to say this is an easy trick with a tight explanation). Given this rudimentary distinction it is reasonable to suppose that evolution through natural selection has afforded human beings some extra psychological tricks over time that allow for conceptual skills, and given the nature of natural selection, those tricks must be present in individual organisms. So Plotkin’s first act in laying out his stall is to declare that culture is a product of human psychological mechanisms and there has to be something we can say about all aspects of culture from this perspective. This is not to argue for a pure psychological determinism, as some sociologists might fear. Rather it is to say that the emergent nature of culture, and the causal impact it might subsequently have, must in some way be influenced by the antecedent psychology of those involved. With this in mind we need to know things about what selection pressures shaped human psychology and what selection pressures allowed the emergence of culture. It is only then that we can think about what selection pressures operate as a result of culture. Under this argument, the cynical bystander’s perspective from the time-line affords a demonstration of a critical role for human agency in the foundations of “first culture”, and a crucial role for human psychology in sustaining cultural processes. None the less, there is no argument for the impotence of culture in shaping human psychological abilities.

Having laid this stall out Plotkin sets about giving reasonably detailed discussions of human intelligence, anthropological views of human nature and culture, psychological adaptations to social living, such as the ubiquitous discussion of the theory of mind abilities that humans appear to have, and treatments of the weighty philosophical issues surrounding social constructionism. The discussion of social constructionism is openly based upon John Searle’s views and depends upon the following: 

(D)istinction between ‘brute’ facts, such as the presence of snow and ice near the summit of Mount Everest, and ‘institutional’ facts, which are dependent upon human intentionality and agreement. The state of being married is one such institutional fact, a socially constructed reality based on a whole set of agreements between people about a variety of matters, ranging from entry into a contract of marriage, including any rituals marking that act, to rights and privileges relating to property, income, children and such like, which are consequences of entering into the contract… (B)rute facts are totally independent of human opinion. (p. 252) 

This distinction leads to a further parse of conceptual space into intrinsic and observer-related features of the world. Observer-related features are dependent upon three key characteristics of human psychology - first, the assignment of function, which is a part of human intentionality, second, the ability to have shared intentionality or collective action toward a common goal and, finally, the construction of constitutive rules. Constitutive rules are not about governing behaviours that already exist but are involved in such activities as the invention of games and political power. It is here, as Plotkin notes, that the definition of culture under review begins to shift ground slightly. Rather than being purely about shared knowledge and beliefs we now have a sense that culture is a process that constructs ideational constraints that might act to guide individual and group output. This is linked by Plotkin to a discussion of niche-construction, very much based upon Laland, Odling-Smee and Feldman’s (2000) work. This puts forward the notion of culture acting to both scaffold intellectual development and change the selection pressures under which intellectual development occurs. Plotkin stops short of a discussion of cultural augmentation of human abilities through Baldwinian selection, but such ideas are clearly part of the backcloth of his stall-setting. As with all manifestations of this idea it comes across as hand-waving to the sceptical reader - but, as with much hand-waving, one has a sense that this is an important idea that we need to be alert to, even if our theories cannot quite deal with it just yet. There are two reasons why I think that theory is currently inadequate to this task. First, we in no way have possession of a good psychology that makes us feel secure. Cognitive science, for example, is still riven with debates about the nature of representation and computation and this makes it hard to see how we can clearly discuss the interaction between cultural processes and human intellect. Similarly, the second fold of the argument surrounds our lack of clear insight into the key natural kinds of cultural transmission and process (which Plotkin discusses when looking at the literature about memes).

Niche-construction is not the most speculative element of Plotkin’s book. That accolade is perhaps best reserved for his tentative but supportive treatment of group-selection arguments in Chapter 6. Having decided that evolutionary psychology has something to say to cultural theory Plotkin further decides that culture, as a group product, potentially requires some notion of group selection. The readers of this journal need no reminding of how contentious this concept is, nor do they need reminding that advocates of group selection feel that evolutionary theory has suffered its own hegemony, that of the post-Hamilton gene as the unit of selection - and Plotkin makes this point in some historical detail.

Plotkin’s arguments about group selection revolve around the issue of whether or not we can treat groups as integrated super-organisms in any way. If we can then perhaps we can also say that these super-organisms are subject to the exigencies of natural selection in the same way that base-level organisms are. Of course, this is dependent upon the correct balance being struck between individual benefit and group benefit. The analogy used is as follows: 

Assuming limited energy supplies, the body divides its resources among the component organs, each of which is essential to the overall functioning of the organism. Put crudely, if the liver competes too successfully in the production of liver cells at the expense of say, the production of lung cells by the lungs, the within-group (i.e. within-organism) success of an individual organ, the liver, is bought at the price of threatening respiration, hence the successful functioning of the group as a whole (i.e. the entire organism). (p. 235) 

It seems odd to regard this as analogous to group selection as it seems perfectly compatible with the notion of individuals shaping up under resource demands. Just because those resource demands are caused by other members of a group is neither here nor there - the thing to discount is the overall benefit of group cohesion, but this can still be achieved with reference to the individual. What is really being alluded to is the notion that many theorists feel that in principle selection can operate at the level of the group alone but the conditions for this are extremely improbable and any such group-level pressures are likely to be displaced by more powerful selection at the individual level. In light of this problem Plotkin presents a couple of conditional arguments in an attempt to support a cautious use of group selection.

First, Plotkin discusses work on the reduction of virulence in viruses such as Myxoma and declares that this has been demonstrated to be not purely a function of increased resistance within the host population. For Plotkin each individual rabbit represents the physical limits of one Myxoma group, and the tacit suggestion is that the only account left of reduced virulence is one from group selection, which seems a little awkward and unconvincing especially when you realise that within a Myxoma group those individual particles that are more virulent are bound to come to dominate (according to Plotkin). The solution to this problem is the “periodic dispersal of individual members of each group and the reconstitution of new groups, some of which contain the right balance of more virulent and less virulent agents” (p. 233).

The consequences of this fission-fusion model are that some groups will be formed that are constituted of more less-virulent than high-virulence individuals and, even though high-virulence individuals will come to dominate in all groups, if those groups with more low-virulence individuals produce more offspring then the overall number of low-virulence individuals within the whole population can be maintained. As indicated above, this is an argument with conditional clauses all of which are debatable.

The second argument revolves around a discussion of part-whole relationships and makes the very simple point that functions, such as the function of pumping blood, are not contained within the constitutive cells of the heart but rather result from the specific organisation of the cells into a larger unit. Given this it would appear to make sense to potentially regard groups as having functional properties that are not embodied within the constitutive individual organisms. The obvious question then becomes “how were these group functions selected for?” and the answer cannot be based in an individual selection story because we have conceded that individuals do not contain the function.

At first glance this argument might appear decisive but thinking about some group functions might challenge this. For example, we can argue that linguistic communication is an emergent function of a group because communication is defined in terms of the transmission of information from an actor to a reactor with the effect of producing an actual behavioural change, or a propensity or likelihood to behave in a certain way, in the reactor. Furthermore, we know that linguistic communication creates a shared conceptual space that allows for public thinking. However, we also know that individual humans possess a suite of adaptations to produce and comprehend language. All language origin stories potentially suffer from the founder-problem - the lucky hominid that started talking had a mute and uncomprehending audience for her first speeches - but only if one assumes a sudden onset of full linguistic competence. It is far more likely that aspects of language emerged gradually, perhaps starting with symbolic communication in a proto-linguistic form as Derek Bickerton (1995) has mooted, and might have been exaptations of extant systems thus enabling other organisms to understand the new trick a conspecific was pulling off with a machinery they all shared. At this point we could begin niche-construction type speculations and argue that a proto-linguistically communicating group is likely to ratchet up the selection pressures toward a more complex linguistic system - but this is not a group selection argument, it is a co-evolution argument and it is worth noting that this is ultimately the position Plotkin slides into as a result of a discursive elision of group selection theory with gene-culture co-evolution at the end of Chapter 6.

To put this counter-argument differently, it is true that the function of a heart is not contained with the individual cells that constitute it, but it is also true that although pumping functions can be carried out by many different machines made of many different substances, the cells of the heart have to be organised in a certain way, enervated in a specific way, etc. This kind of organisation is a product of developmental genes and allometric constraints upon design space and it is absolutely the case that there is a story to be told about the evolution of the cell and gene, upon which any origin story about the function of the heart must be coherently predicated. Plotkin knows this, this is the same point as his core premise for the whole book - that what we know about human nature must be able to inform our models of group culture - and it remains very unclear why he has made this excursion into group selection theory.

Maybe the group selection concerns stem from confusion between interest in the intrinsic properties of the group qua a group and the origins of those properties. Or perhaps there is a conflation of domains of selection - for example, it is quite possible to sustain an argument for natural selection-like algorithms operating within the cultural domain, and as such operating over group outputs. The utility of those cultural products so selected might well have adaptive advantages for the individual members of the group who produce and use them, and this then becomes a niche-construction argument again. This is entirely consonant with traditional selection accounts and a group-selection account would add nothing. A discussion on linguistic diversity would have helped to bring out some of these ideas as any such discussions demand an account that preserves core Chomskyan assumptions at the same time as explaining significant differences between languages. Nettle (1999) provides an informative discussion of such matters noting the correlation between linguistic and bio- diversity. Languages shape up under local demands met by indigenous groups - no group selection is required, but cooperation is.

Plotkin’s book has the feel of an unfinished manuscript but I think that it would be unfair to harshly judge him for this. The fault lies not with him but the state of the art. Within the behavioural sciences there is a confident feeling that things are moving towards a robust and fruitful paradigm that will yield responses to some previously unanswered questions. More interestingly, this optimism sanctions folk to write books about the contribution of the behavioural sciences to the big questions such as the origin of culture and I am pleased that Plotkin has made the effort to licence this enquiry. None the less, as with much optimism, there is a slightly stifled sense, similar to that had when suffering the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon and trying to extract the appropriate word from the back of the mind. Bits of information and parts of conceptual structures are placed hither and thither throughout this book and viewed from afar it might look like the beginnings of a substantial theoretical approach, but close up not all of it coheres. This does not detract from my general feeling however, which is that this is a book well worth reading if only to prompt one’s own speculations.


Bickerton, D, (1995) Language and Human Behaviour. London: UCL Press.

Laland, K. L., Odling-Smee, J., and Feldman, M. W. (2000) Niche construction, biological evolution and cultural change. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 23, 131 - 175.

Nettle, D. (1999) Linguistic Diversity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pinker, S. (2002) The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. London: Allen Lane: The Penguin Press.

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© Thomas E. Dickins.


Dickins, T. E. (2002). Review of The Imagined World Made Real: Towards a Natural Science of Culture by Henry Plotkin. Human Nature Review. 2: 392-397.

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