Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Tim Ingold - The Social Brain Hypothesis

I found these videos (all seven are embedded in this frame) of Tim Ingold lecturing about the social brain hypothesis at PLoS Blogs' Neuroanthropology. The blogger there, daniel.lende, does an excellent job of arguing against Robin Dunbar’s Social Brain Hypothesis, and offering own explanation of how the human brain really is social - “I’ll attempt to show that the brain is social because life is.”

To read Lende's post, check it out at his blog.

Tim Ingold - The Social Brain

1 comment:

Andy said...

The social intelligence hypothesis simply states that evolutionary expansion of primate brains was closely correlated with social evolution of primate groups. Period. As far as I can see, all Ingold is doing is quibbling about how much of a distinction we can make between brain, body and environment. This is an important issue, but I really don’t see how it bears on the validity of the original hypothesis. This hypothesis is not dependent on a view of the brain as somehow isolated from the body and the environment, but is quite compatible with a more integrated view.

Though I find Ingold’s discussion very confusing, he seems to be setting up a straw man. This is encapsulated in his statement that Dunbar’s view of the social brain “mak[es] social life look like the aggregate effect of brains telling their owners what to do.” Apparently it makes social life look this way to Ingold, it doesn’t make social life look that way to me. Again, all this view does is say that there is a close correlation between brain and society. If one happens to believe that the brain causes everything else (I’m not sure anyone really believes this), then one will naturally view social life as an aggregate effect of brain activity. But if one doesn’t begin with this view, one will not see social life in this way. Indeed, one could view social life as primary, and brains as one component in this vast network. I’m not sure, but I think this is Ingold’s view. If so, there is nothing incompatible about this view with the social intelligence hypothesis. It does not affect the key point that brain size/complexity is closely correlated with social group size/complexity.

Again, he says that “Robin Dunbar proposes – that we have big brains because we need them to manage all the information related to living in large primate social groups, including being able to calculate what others are doing and making sure social relations advance our own evolutionary ends.” That is a perfectly valid perspective on the situation. From our own personal point of view, this is exactly what our brains do when we engage in society. It does not mean that this is the only way to view it. We could just as well say that big brains are the outcome of a socialization process that includes them and other components/forces.

Perhaps Ingold would have more appreciation for this if he actually applied his views to his own life. If someone asked him why he agreed to deliver this lecture, I’m pretty sure he would respond with something like, “because I thought it was important to state my views of the matter.” But in fact, that is precisely a statement from the individualistic brain view that he is arguing against. An answer more in keeping with his “life is social” view would be, “this lecture is the outcome of a vast network of social forces, a small portion of which are associated with an identity called Timothy Ingold who has the illusion of choosing to deliver a lecture.”