Abstract: Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan offered one of the most persuasive and comprehensive arguments in recent memory for the importance of a comparative approach in brain, psychological and cultural sciences, and Iacoboni has been a leader in helping us to understand the mechanisms through which brains can become encultured. But their intervention also presents us with a strategic question: Just how broadly are we ready to embrace human variability? I will argue, alongside the suggestions of our other two panelists, that we could use a robust revival of ethnology, the neglected comparative dimension of the anthropological tradition, and a renewed interest in the exotic and strange (however out of intellectual fashion), to counteract biases toward the “WEIRD.” This broad-as-possible cultural-brain science – what some of us are calling neuroanthropology – will privilege the envelope of human possibility, to actively combat the regression-to-the-mean of WEIRD research biases. In addition, the broad-as-possible cultural-brain science will take seriously others’ experience-near perspectives about living in alternative realities. Other accounts offer prima facie evidence that warrants serious investigation, even if this requires methodological eclecticism. As case studies, this response to the previous presentations will also cite ongoing research on human echolocation and cultural differences in pain perception.
Bio: Greg Downey is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney and a Research Fellow in the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science. He is also a co-contributor to Neuroanthropology, a PLoS blog he founded with conference “Stress and Resilience” session chair Daniel Lende, as well as co-editor (with Daniel Lende) of The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012). Greg trained in cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago, working primarily in Brazil and the United States before moving to Australia. His principal research interests are in sports, dance, and skill acquisition, where he tries to bring together research from anthropology and the brain sciences with evolutionary theory, psychology, and sports science.
His first book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005), based on multiple years of field research and apprenticeship, explores how the martial art and dance, capoeira, affects practitioners. His articles and commentary have appeared in American Anthropologist, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Ethnomusicology, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and Social Studies of Science, among others. He is currently working on a new monograph, Super Human: Sport and Human Potential, using evidence from both sports science and anthropological research to sketch out the limits of the human body’s potential.
Greg has started a new research project with the Australian Rugby Union. The research team seeks to document and better understand behavioral, perceptual, and cognitive diversity in sport, focusing on how players from different playing and training traditions might use diverse cognitive and sensory strategies to play in the same positions. Initial research is being conducted with Anglo-Australian, Aboriginal, and Pacific Islander athletes in Sydney, but the team hopes to expand the project to New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa in the coming years, as these small populations perform disproportionately well in international competitions, suggesting that they possess strong local systems for developing expertise.