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Is it in our nature to be altruistic, or evil, to make art, use tools, or create language? Is it in our nature to think in any particular way? For Daniel L. Everett, the answer is a resounding no: it isn’t in our nature to do any of these things because human nature does not exist—at least not as we usually think of it. Flying in the face of major trends in Evolutionary Psychology and related fields, he offers a provocative and compelling argument in this book that the only thing humans are hardwired for is freedom: freedom from evolutionary instinct and freedom to adapt to a variety of environmental and cultural contexts.
Everett sketches a blank-slate picture of human cognition that focuses not on what is in the mind but, rather, what the mind is in—namely, culture. He draws on years of field research among the Amazonian people of the Pirahã in order to carefully scrutinize various theories of cognitive instinct, including Noam Chomsky’s foundational concept of universal grammar, Freud’s notions of unconscious forces, Adolf Bastian’s psychic unity of mankind, and works on massive modularity by evolutionary psychologists such as Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Jerry Fodor, and Steven Pinker. Illuminating unique characteristics of the Pirahã language, he demonstrates just how differently various cultures can make us think and how vital culture is to our cognitive flexibility. Outlining the ways culture and individual psychology operate symbiotically, he posits a Buddhist-like conception of the cultural self as a set of experiences united by various apperceptions, episodic memories, ranked values, knowledge structures, and social roles—and not, in any shape or form, biological instinct.
The result is fascinating portrait of the “dark matter of the mind,” one that shows that our greatest evolutionary adaptation is adaptability itself.
About the Author
Daniel L. Everett is the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He is the author of many books, including Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes; Language: The Cultural Tool; and Linguistic Fieldwork: A Student Guide. His life and work is also the subject of a documentary film, The Grammar of Happiness.
"Everett begins by offering a fascinating argument: the only source of human learning is the individual—not in the mind, not in the brain, not in societies. Further, most of this learning is transmitted through “culturally articulated dark matter,” which he defines as “any knowledge … that is unspoken in normal circumstances, usually unarticulated even to ourselves.” From this, Everett lays out his thesis in three parts: the human unconscious may be classified into “the unspoken and the ineffable”; this unconscious is influenced by the interaction of human perception and “a ranked-value, linguistic-based model of culture”; and that “learning as cultural beings” affects human thought and identity. Everett argues for and develops his thesis and its consequences in the remainder of the book. He makes a strong argument and brings in a wide-range of interesting anthropological case studies along the way. Recommended."
"Everett takes us through the history of philosophy to show variations on those two themes as elaborated by the famous philosophers of the Western intellectual tradition, ending with his basically Aristotelian view, in contrast to the Chomskyan theory of innate structures and universal grammar. In the process, he challenges Freud’s theory of the unconscious, Jung’s archetypes, Bastien’s psychic unity of man, Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, and other variations on that theme. . . . What he says about this broad and multifaceted scope of human behavior is interesting and informative, and can be profitably read by anthropologists in all four fields of the discipline."
— American Anthropologist
“A hit and the biggest wallop in the breadbasket Noam Chomsky’s hegemony had ever suffered.”
— Tom Wolfe