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 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.
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 L. Medin is Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology and Professor of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. He is the coauthor of The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature and coeditor of Folkbiology, both published by the MIT Press.
“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 beautifully illustrates Atran and Medin's findings in the realm of folkbiology. They present a series of brilliantly conceived and executed studies whose importance goes far beyond being invaluable science to having real implications for social policy, especially in areas concerned with the environmental issues. This book is essential reading for psychologists, who all too often look at problems from the lens of just one culture, for anthropologists, who all too often neglect evolved universals of thought, and for anyone else interested in the relations between culture, thought, and human values.”
—Frank Keil, Department of Psychology, Yale University
“Building on more than ten years of active collaboration, Atran and Medin bring together in this volume a synthesis of their pioneering research on the nature of folkbiological cognition, pointing to new problems and proposing a reconsideration of some of the basic premises of cognitive science. They ground their proposals about how people think about the world of plants and animals in systematic long-term ethnographic description. They describe innovative ethnographic comparative field experiments that include US subjects and non-western communities (the Native American Menominee and the Itza' and Q'eqchi' Maya of Guatemala) that will become a model for future research. Their questions on culture and cognition range widely and include what at first may appear to be unrelated areas of knowledge (folkbiology and sacred values, mental models and environmental decision making) but which in the end are easily encompassed in their emerging theoretical framework. Atran and Medin have successfully combined the theories, methods, and insights of anthropology and psychology to produce an instant classic on the study of the native mind. This is a remarkable book.”
—Brent Berlin, Department of Anthropology, University of Georgia
“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 sufficient—otherwise nature-deficit disorder results.”
—Lawrence W. Barsalou, Emory University