A Rumination on Hillary Clinton, DNA, Cognition, and Culture in Just One Blog

Michael in the last pot here, is pointing to a book review “No Big Deal, but This Researchers’ Theory Explains Everything about How Americans Parent” in Slate.org that describes something that is self-evident to anthropologists, i.e. that whatever is defined as “cognitively advanced” is in fact culturally determined.  This is a point which I tried to make, apparently unsuccessfully, to commenters on this article, which was posted in Ethnography.com in March.  What can I say, I just don’t get it how a culturally determined characteristic like “cognitive ability” which is specific to a time and place is determined by DNA.    I also don’t trust the tools of the psychometricians when they are used indiscriminately across national, temporal, and cultural boundaries. (Note the operative word: “indiscriminate.”)


Along these same lines, though on an unrelated subject, there was another pair of articles about DNA I read today, one by the conservative columnist George Will in today’s Washington Post, “Obama is Right on Syria “.  In an outbreak of comity, the conservative Will is complementing the prudence of President Obama for not taking military action in Syria.  In making this argument, Will is in effect pointing out that there is not always an American solution for every foreign policy problem.   He contrasts this with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim in a 2010 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that “Throughout our history, through hot wars and cold, through economic struggles, and the long march to a more perfect union, Americans have always risen to the challenges we have faced. That is who we are. It is in our DNA. We do believe there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved.”  So up pops yet another biological metaphor: DNA determines that Americans always rise to challenges, and makes us believe that all can be achieved.


Now for my major stretch in logic.  Science, testing, DNA, and the genetic revolution have become a metaphor which stretches way beyond where, from a scientific perspective, it should be.  Scientists are not at fault, as Rajiv Khan seems to be pointing out to me in his comments.  However, as the book review in Slate points out, cognitive ability is perceived by American culture as being ever manipulable by parents, foreign policy by Secretarys of State, and so forth.  This is why such metaphor is so appealing—there is indeed a culturally grounded belief that “there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved” by Americans.  Geneticists and others have of course taken advantage of this cultural bias toward explanation via DNA, and pumped the federal government for ever-larger grants in ways that anthropology can only dream of.

4 thoughts on “A Rumination on Hillary Clinton, DNA, Cognition, and Culture in Just One Blog

  1. Tony, why are you separating cultures when it comes to making a judgment about cognitive ability? Isn’t humanity, ultimately, just one culture? How are you, personally, determining whether something is “intelligent” or not? What is your criteria?

  2. dad,
    Because “cognitive ability” is always defined in a communicative context which is grounded in cultural.

    And no, humanity is not ultimately “just one culture,” though they are oe species (a biological concept). However, there are social boundaries between groups of people created by communicative capacities (language), economic inequality, geographic remoteness, and a host of other interacting conditions. All of these cultural constructs do indeed have consequences for who mates with who, even though they are not biological constructs.

    Measuring “cognitive ability” does make some sense within a culture, particularly modern bureaucratized societies which value certain types of literacy, numeracy, and reasoning. Certainly, it makes sense when organizing mass institutions like schools. Psychologists have also done a lot to understand perception using such tests. But ultimately, they are written in one language (and not the plethora of others), and measure pre-existing values which emerge from a particular culture at a particular time and place. So this is why I think what is ultimately being measured are values specific to a particular society.

    This is not to say that for some purposes that assuming people are more or less the same is not a good idea. Clearly, a lot has been learned from both biology and psychology about genetics and cognition which can be used to generalize about “humans.” However, I often question how much data which is developed from undergrad psych classes can be generalized beyond the society the data comes from–though sometimes it can be.

    Someone mentioned the “altruism” games developed by Henrich et al. I saw these being played in Tanzania–and was impressed by the differences in altruism described between agro-pastoralists, and horticulturalists. The results were indeed different, and resulted from different ways of perceive the world rooted in local economics. I do though have a tough time reifying this as “intelligence” which implies hierarchy and value, and prefer to think about it as “cultural differences.”

    Thanks for the question–such questions across disciplines challenge my thinking.


  3. Ok, how can we then explain why people from many different cultures collaborate on certain space programs or travel to attend foreign universities? Also, why is your definition of intelligence more valid compared to the one that is implied based on international math competitions, et cetera?

  4. People collaborate on space collaborations because they learn enough of the cultural norms to communicate effectively. This would seem to me to especially apply to the world o science which is a sub-culture of its own.

    As for the international math competition question, you can turn that question around. Why is the international math competition a better definition of intelligence than say, the Koran memorization contests that are common in the Islamic world, the World Spelling Bee context, or international music competitions? All have their place, and are valid within their own context, but not necessarily outside those.


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