In this paper I will be reviewing literature, mostly from cognitive science, related to the human brain’s processes of categorization

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The ugly ducklinga story about ducks and swans, or a metaphor of ethnicity?

An exploration of ethnic groups and their cognition as natural living kinds

Francisco Gil-White

405 Hilgard Ave. box 951553

Anthropology, University of California

Los Angeles CA 90095-1553

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Abstract: Cognitive psychology must investigate human social-group processing. Ethnies and a few other related social categories are processed by the ‘natural living kinds’ module that processes species and genus level categories because such groups have (1) category-based endogamy, and (2) descent-based membership, which make such social groups very similar in appearance to living kinds. Evidence collected while doing ethnographic fieldwork in Mongolia support the hypothesis that ethnies are living kinds to the human brain, with its associated essentialism. An evolutionary argument is advanced for why ethnic groups have become inputs to the ‘living kinds’ module.
Keywords: Cognition, psychology, essentialism, natural kinds, categorization, ethnicity, circumstantialism, instrumentalism, primordialism, Mongolia.
(Please do not quote or cite without permission.)


Although some early shots have been fired (e.g. Hirschfeld 1996), the cognitive revolution has yet to advance its troops to the border of ‘ethnic studies’, even though few topics would seem of more immediate concern than understanding how our cognition processes social ‘groups’––in particular ethnic and racial groups.

The cognitive revolution is predicated on the argument that, to understand humans, we must decipher their specialized ‘mental organs’––i.e. we must privilege process in order to discover what inputs are handled in the same ways and/or with the same mechanisms. This way, we gain insights into how the brain parses the world and bootstraps learning (Tooby & Cosmides 1992). One of the central contributions of this approach has been the idea that the brain is at birth not a domain-general clean slate, but rather a motley assemblage of dedicated components and subcomponents, called ‘mental organs’ or ‘modules’, that are ‘content-rich’ (i.e. come innately packed with a great deal of information in the form of biases and assumptions) and ‘domain-specific’ (i.e. each module is specialized to process a particular domain). If groups of a certain kind that we might want to call ‘ethnic’ arise all over the world despite differences in geography, ecology, politics, and economy, then perhaps we should consider the possibility of a ‘mental organ’ for the social world whose operation makes human organization into ethnies a predictably recurring and stubbornly persistent phenomenon (despite variations in its forms). I will present a hypothesis and evidence that ethnies (and closely related social categories) are processed not unlike bird, fish, or bear, and thus are processed by the ‘natural living kinds’ cognitive module, which initially evolved to organize and process the biological domain.

Studies with children are teaching us a great deal about how the human brain processes the biological world (Gelman 1996), and ethnobiological work in anthropology increasingly supports the hypothesis that such processing is a human universal (Berlin, Breedlove, & Raven 1974, Hunn 1977, Hays 1983, Brown 1984, Atran 1990, Berlin 1992). This literature suggests we have a ‘living kinds’ cognitive module which assumes categories of life to have constitutive and inalienable ‘essences’ or ‘natures’.

Some of the module’s features are permeate the familiar tale The ugly duckling. The egg of a swan accidentally falls on a duck’s nest and is incubated to term by an unsuspecting duck mom. Following gestation, the hatchling is raised by momma duck. Everyone, including the adventitious hatchling himself, takes him for a duck (even if all are agreed that this a positively ugly duck fit for ‘lookist’ discrimination). In time, this ‘duck’ grows and blossoms into a swan, revealing to everyone their mistake.

What is the moral of the story? That depends on how one reads it. At a superficial level––and this is probably the common reading––it is a story about the importance of reserving judgment, and about vindication. The baby swan was wrongly called an ‘ugly duckling’ on the basis of appearance, but he laughed last after turning into a beautiful swan (which the story implies to be far superior to a mere duck). The lesson: don’t judge others too quickly, things may not be as they seem. But there is a deeper message, so obvious that one hesitates to call it ‘a message’––so obvious, in fact, that most of us probably don’t notice it at all, unconsciously relegating it to the status of ‘a given’. The egg came from a swan’s nest, so its parents were swans, and therefore no amount of duck rearing can turn the hatchling into a duck; he will develop normally as a swan no matter what he learns, and no matter what others think he is, or even what he himself thinks he is. For he is a swan––that is his nature.

Like most such stories that turn animals into anthropomorphic speaking and thinking characters, I doubt that The ugly duckling is really about ducks and swans. Its replicative success across time evidences its efficiency and relevance: it is a simple parable of human life. Moreover, although on the surface it may be a story about vindication and the wisdom of reserving judgment, underneath it is a story about the effects of rearing environment on one’s ‘living kind’-derived nature (i.e. none). The passivity of its acceptance as a plausible story, reveals that we find it incontrovertible that if animal A rears animal B, this will turn the latter into anything other than a B. Could it be that a metaphorical implication—that one’s ethnic status (and therefore one’s ethnic ‘nature’) is also a matter of blood-descent rather than enculturation––is equally plausible to humans?

Consider a modern example. The Weimar Jews were quite assimilated to German society in speech, custom, and dress; they had fought as Germans in WWI; and many thought of themselves as Germans. However, in the ensuing anti-Semitic rampage, not merely those who preserved ‘Jewish’ ascriptions and traditions for themselves, but even those with a little bit of Jewish blood (as little as 1/16) were slated for persecution. Nazi anti-Semitic ideology was openly essentializing, attributing a corrupt ‘nature’ to those it persecuted. The question is: why was it so plausible to its many converts that even a little bit of Jewish ‘blood’––unknown perhaps even to their bearers, and against all the powers of German enculturation––would pass on this supposedly corrupt ‘nature’? To ask this question, and to presume its answer to have general relevance, is to ponder the brain’s processing of the socially organized world.

I will argue that humans come equipped with mental machinery to naively process ethnic groups as natural ‘living kinds’. Such machinery obviously makes a grave mistake from the scientific point of view––an ethnic so-called ‘nature’, after all, is nothing if not a set of culturally transmitted norms and behaviors, so believing these to result from biological descent is an ontological error. But if it is bad ontology, it may be good epistemology. Suppose that (1) people have very similar cultural norms to those of their parents, (2) the norms of their parents are those of their ethnie, (3) norms change rather sharply across ethnic boundaries, and (4) ethnic groups are more or less endogamous; then, treating an ethnic group as a natural ‘living kind’ will generate the right behavioral prediction most of the time: your ‘nature’ (the norms you automatically and sometimes even unconsciously adhere to) is a function of your ‘kind’ (the ethnic group you belong in), which in turn must be the ‘kind’ of your biological ancestors (since such groups are endogamous).

Keeping track of these ‘kinds’ is important, for attempted interactions with strange ‘aliens’ with different behavioral expectations and standards of performance will more likely lead to failed than to mutually profitable interactions (Robert Boyd, personal communication). Not necessarily because of ill will, but merely because of a failure to speak, as it were (and perhaps even literally), the same language. Thus, a blindly opportunistic evolutionary process probably found it cheap and simple to make ethnic groups an input to a preexisting ‘living kinds’ module in order to provide us with very predictive categories that would enable us to do the necessary interactional discriminations. If this solution led to few predictive mistakes about people’s norms in the ancestral environment, the alternative––to create novel machinery that would be more ontologically correct in its naïve assumptions about the social world––would have been too expensive to build. Hence the exaptation.1

If the central point of this paper––that we naively and intuitively process ethnic groups as ‘living kinds’––is correct, this should have far-reaching implications for our understanding of what ethnies are and why they behave as they do today. The latter is an increasingly urgent concern of anthropologists and sociologists, for obvious reasons.

Rothbart & Taylor (1992) have argued before me that ethnies may be processed as natural kinds. But they also suggest much more, advancing the argument that social categories in general are thought of as living kinds. They also don’t detail much the structure of the cognitive model they propose. I will argue that only certain categories––namely ethnies, ‘races’, feudal classes, and occupational castes––are inputs for the ‘living kinds’ module, the principal reason being that these are endogamous social groups where membership is a function of descent.

Both characteristics––endogamy, and descent-based membership––make ethnic groups a lot like a natural living kind even if, in the final analysis, they are not. This contradicts Rothbart & Taylor’s (1992) blanket claim that “human social categories are more like human artifacts than natural kinds”. It is certainly true that some social categories are “more like” human artifacts (e.g. ‘residents of California’); but others are nevertheless “more like” natural living kinds (e.g. ethnic groups). Surely the words “more like” imply a criterion of similarity. If some social categories recruit their members, mate, behave, and perceive each other as natural living kinds, it does not make sense to say that they are “more like” human artifacts (even if that is what they in fact are!). Surface similarity and scientific categorization, after all, are not the same thing, and this is why a dolphin is not a fish. This point also contradicts the prevailing ‘constructivist’ prejudice of circumstantialists (a.k.a. instrumentalists) who claim that ethnies are ‘socially constructed’ as people rationally follow their associative interests. Again, if ethnic groups recruit their members, mate, behave, and perceive each other as natural living kinds, then the sense in which they are ‘constructed’––though real––does not result from the individual political decisions of rational actors. The arguments presented here thus support the prejudices of primordialists (see Gil-White 1999 for an extended discussion of the circumstantialist/primordialist debate).

To find out how ethnic groups are processed by the human brain we need cognitive data. I shall review what has been learned about natural kind cognition, and in particular living kinds, and will present data collected in Mongolia that bear on the hypothesis that ethnies are processed as natural living kinds.

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