Thursday, December 20, 2007

Biogenetic structuralism

Biogenetic structuralism is a body of theory in anthropology. The perspective grounds discussions of learning, culture, personality and social action in neuroscience. The original book of that title (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974) represented an interdisciplinary merger of anthropology, psychology and the neurosciences. It presented the view that the universal structures characteristic of human language and culture, cognition about time and space, affect, certain psychopathologies, and the like were due to the genetically predisposed organization of the nervous system. It seemed to the authors preposterous that the invariant patterns of behavior, cognition and culture being discussed in various structuralist theories in anthropology, psychology and literary criticism could be lodged anywhere other than in the nervous system. After all, every thought, every image, every feeling and action is demonstrably mediated by the nervous system. Moreover, it seemed possible to develop a theoretical perspective that: was non-dualistic in modelling mind and body, was not reductionistic in the positivist sense (i.e., that the physical sciences can give a complete account of all things mental/cultural), and was informed by all reasonable sources of data about human consciousness and culture. In other words, no explanatory account of culture is complete without encompassing what we know about the structures in the nervous system mediating culture -- for example, music, which is a cultural universal mediated by demonstrable neurophysiological structures (see Biomusicology).

This project had to be lodged within an evolutionary frame due to: (1) the evidence of dramatic encephalization found in the fossil record of extinct human ancestors, and the fact that cultural variation was conceived as the primary mode of human adaptation (see Evolutionary neuroscience). We thus explored the different areas of the nervous system that seem to have evolved during the course of hominid encephalization and that produce the distinctly human quality of mentation, learning, communication, and social action characteristic of our species today (see Human Evolution).

Neurognosis and the cognized environment

The group's first book presented some general concepts which were later refined and used in other studies. One important concept was neurognosis, a term coined to label the inherent, rudimentary knowledge available to cognition in the initial organization of the pre- and perinatal nervous system (see Pre- and perinatal psychology). A human baby was conceived as taking its first cognitive and perceptual stance toward the world from the standpoint of a system of initial, genetically predisposed neurognostic models that come to develop in somatosensory interaction with the world.

The principal function of the human nervous system at the level of the cerebral cortex is the construction of a vast network of these models. This network of neural models in each individual is called the cognized environment, contrasted with the actual operational environment that includes both the real nature of that individual as an organism and the effective external environment (see Laughlin and Brady 1978:6, d'Aquili et al. 1979:12, Rubinstein et al. 1984:21, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990). The notions of cognized and operational environments were borrowed by the biogenetic structuralist group from the late Roy Rappaport who coined the terms in his 1968 classic, Pigs for the Ancestors (see Rappaport 1968, 1979, 1984, 1999). The perspective began to take on a more developmental perspective as it incorporated the works of Jerome Bruner, Jean Piaget and others. Biogenetic structural theory now holds that not only the initial organization of the baby's cognized environment is essentially neurognostic, but so too is the course of development of those models and patterns of entrainment of models -- a view not dissimilar to Carl Jung's notion of archetype (see Laughlin 1996 on archetypes and the brain).

Major foci: ritual and the symbolic function

The first book-length application of biogenetic structural theory was an account of the evolution and structure of human ritual. In The Spectrum of Ritual (d'Aquili et al. 1979) the group generated a theory of ritual behavior as a mechanism by which intra- and interorganismic entrainment of neurocognitive processes are evoked, thus making concerted action among social animals possible. The general model was used to examine formalized behavior among animals generally, then specifically among mammals, primates and finally humans. They also looked at the various neurocognitive processes mediating arousal, affect, physical and social cognition, etc. As it has turned out, ritual has been a major focus of the group's work (see also d'Aquili 1983, d'Aquili and Laughlin 1975, Laughlin and McManus 1982, Laughlin et al. 1986, Laughlin 1988c) because of ritual's ubiquitous nature and its role in controlling cognition and experience.

Another major focus of biogenetic structural analysis has been what the group calls the symbolic function -- that is, the process by which meaning and form are integrated to become symbols in the brain (see Laughlin, McManus and Stephens 1981, Laughlin and Stephens 1980, MacDonald et al. 1988, Young- Laughlin and Laughlin 1988). The group has been particularly interested in how sensory stimuli as symbols are able to penetrate (i.e., find their way) to those neurocognitive models mediating meaning and signification, and how models express themselves in symbolic action and cultural artifacts. Among other things, the biogenetic structuralists developed a theory of the evolution of the symbolic function that proceeds from primordial symbol, through cognized SYMBOL systems to sign systems, and finally to formal sign systems, any or all of which may operate at any moment in adult human cognition (Laughlin, McManus and Stephens 1981).

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