Skip navigation
Paperback | $20.00 Short | £13.95 | ISBN: 9780262514088 | 344 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 1 line drawing, 2 maps, 25 graphs, 22 tables| January 2010

The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature


Surveys show that our growing concern over protecting the environment is accompanied by a diminishing sense of human contact with nature. Many people have little commonsense knowledge about nature—are unable, for example, to identify local plants and trees or describe how these plants and animals interact. Researchers report dwindling knowledge of nature even in smaller, nonindustrialized societies. In The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature, Scott Atran and Douglas Medin trace the cognitive consequences of this loss of knowledge. Drawing on nearly two decades of cross-cultural and developmental research, they examine the relationship between how people think about the natural world and how they act on it and how these two phenomena are affected by cultural differences.

These studies, which involve a series of targeted comparisons among cultural groups living in the same environment and engaged in the same activities, reveal critical universal aspects of mind as well as equally critical cultural differences. Atran and Medin find that, despite a base of universal processes, the cultural differences in understandings of nature are associated with significant differences in environmental decision making as well as intergroup conflict and stereotyping stemming from these differences. The book includes two intensive case studies, one focusing on agro-forestry among Maya Indians and Spanish speakers in Mexico and Guatemala and the other on resource conflict between Native-American and European-American fishermen in Wisconsin. The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature offers new perspectives on general theories of human categorization, reasoning, decision making, and cognitive development.

Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology
A Bradford Book

About the Authors

Scott Atran is Research Director in Anthropology at France's National Center for Scientific Research and Visiting Professor of Psychology and Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He is the coeditor, with Douglas Medin, of Folkbiology (MIT Press, 1999).

Douglas Medin is Professor in the Psychology Department at Northwestern University. He is the coeditor, with Scott Atran, of Folkbiology (MIT Press, 1999).


"The Native Mind is a milestone in interdisciplinary work. Through painstaking analysis of deeply complex phenomena, Atran and Medin make significant advances in our understanding of cognition in context.", N. J. Enfield, Times Literary Supplement


"The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature beautifullyillustrates Atran and Medin's findings in the realm of folkbiology. Theypresent a series of brilliantly conceived and executed studies whoseimportance goes far beyond being invaluable science to having realimplications for social policy, especially in areas concerned with theenvironmental issues. This book is essential reading for psychologists, whoall too often look at problems from the lens of just one culture, foranthropologists, who all too often neglect evolved universals of thought,and for anyone else interested in the relations among culture, thought,and human values."
Frank Keil, Department of Psychology, Yale University

"Atran and Medin's pioneering account of biocognition unifies anthropology and psychology to move cultural cognition forward in a socially responsible way. Their extraordinary research program shows that naturally selected abilities produce sophisticated biological knowledge when exposure to the environment and cultural support are sufficientotherwise nature-deficitdisorder results."
Lawrence W. Barsalou, Emory University

"Building on more than ten years of active collaboration, Atran and Medinbring together in this volume a synthesis of their pioneering research onthe nature of folkbiological cognition, pointing to new problems andproposing a reconsideration of some of the basic premises of cognitivescience. They ground their proposals about how people think about the worldof plants and animals in systematic long-term ethnographic description. Theydescribe innovative ethnographic comparative field experiments that includeUS subjects and non-western communities (the Native American Menominee andthe Itza' and Q'eqchi' Maya of Guatemala) that will become a model forfuture research. Their questions on culture and cognition range widely andinclude what at first may appear to be unrelated areas of knowledge(folkbiology and sacred values, mental models and environmental decisionmaking) but which in the end are easily encompassed in their emergingtheoretical framework. Atran and Medin have successfully combined thetheories, methods, and insights of anthropology and psychology to produce aninstant classic on the study of the native mind. This is a remarkable book."
Brent Berlin, Department of Anthropology, University of Georgia