Across two studies, a wide age range of participants was interviewed about the nature of death. All participants were living in rural Madagascar in a community where ancestral beliefs and practices are widespread. In Study 1, children (8-17 years) and adults (19-71 years) were asked whether bodily and mental processes continue after death. The death in question was presented in the context of a narrative that focused either on the corpse or on the ancestral practices associated with the afterlife. Participants aged 8 years and older claimed that death brings an end to most bodily and mental processes. Nevertheless, particularly in the context of the religious narrative, they claimed that certain mental processes continue even after death. This assertion of an afterlife was more evident among adults than children, especially with respect to cognitive processes, such as knowing and remembering. In Study 2, 5-and 7-year-olds were asked similar questions in connection with the death of a bird and a person. Seven-year-olds consistently claimed that bodily and mental processes cease at death, whereas 5-year-olds were unsystematic in their replies. Together, the two studies replicate and extend findings obtained with Western children showing that, in the course of development, different conceptions of death are elaborated-a biological conception in which death terminates living processes and a religious conception in which death marks the beginning of a new form of spiritual existence.
This article presents a model of identity and difference alternative to ethnicity. It describes how the Vezo of western Madagascar construe their identity by transcending descent or descent‐based features of the person. To be a Vezo is to have learned Vezo‐ness, and to perform it; identity is an activity rather than a state of being. Difference is construed by an analogous process of identification: others are different because they have acquired and perform another identity. To the Vezo, neither identity nor difference is inherent in people; both are performative. [identity, difference, ethnicity, Madagascar, Vezo]
The paper concerns the role of intentionality in reasoning about wrong doing. Anthropologists have claimed that, in certain non-Western societies, people ignore whether an act of wrong doing is committed intentionally or accidentally. To examine this proposition, we look at the case of Madagascar. We start by analyzing how Malagasy people respond to incest, and we find that in this case they do not seem to take intentionality into account: catastrophic consequences follow even if those who commit incest are not aware that they are related as kin; punishment befalls on innocent people; and the whole community is responsible for repairing the damage. However, by looking at how people reason about other types of wrong doing, we show that the role of intentionality is well understood, and that in fact this is so even in the case of incest. We therefore argue that, when people contemplate incest and its consequences, they simultaneously consider two quite different issues: the issue of intentionality and blame, and the much more troubling and dumbfounding issue of what society would be like if incest were to be permitted. This entails such a fundamental attack on kinship and on the very basis of society that issues of intentionality and blame become irrelevant. Using the insights we derive from this Malagasy case study, we re-examine the results of Haidt’s psychological experiment on moral dumbfoundedness, which uses a story about incest between siblings as one of its test scenarios. We suggest that the dumbfoundedness that was documented among North American students may be explained by the same kind of complexity that we found in Madagascar. In light of this, we discuss the methodological limitations of experimental protocols, which are unable to grasp multiple levels of response. We also note the limitations of anthropological methods and the benefits of closer cross-disciplinary collaboration.
How different are the concepts held by children who grow up in a North American middle class neighborhood and by children who grow up in a rural Malagasy fishing village? By probing Malagasy children's and adults' conceptual representations of human and animal kind, biological inheritance, innate potential and family relations, the studies presented in this Monograph address current debates about the acquisition and the nature of concepts in the domains of folkbiology and folksociology. Cross-cultural and developmental studies of this kind bear on the hypothesis that conceptual development in these domains is supported and constrained by innate conceptual content. If so, one would expect cross-cultural universality in the relevant adult concepts and their early emergence in childhood regardless of widely different input conditions. We chose to conduct these studies among the Vezo of Madagascar because the ethnographic literature has attributed to them folkbiological and folksociological theories that are radically different, even in commensurable, with those of North American adults. Vezo therefore provide a challenging test for the innate conceptual constraints hypothesis.Four studies probed aspects of biological and sociological reasoning of Vezo children, adolescents and adults through a number of adoption scenarios. Despite ethnographic reports to the contrary, we found cross-cultural convergence in adult concepts of biological inheritance, but the pattern of development of this concept differed greatly from that seen in North America. Moreover, in agreement with the ethnographic literature, we found that Vezo adults have constructed a distinctive theory of social group identity. However, we found that children's reasoning in this domain is under the influence of endogenous constraints that are overturned in the course of development. Finally, we found cross-cultural convergence in adults' concept of species kind, as well as evidence for the early emergence of this concept. In light of these findings, we discuss the nature of the constraints on children's conceptual representations, the developmental process through which the adults' concepts are constructed, and relations between Vezotheories of folkbiology and folksociology.
The article takes to task the well‐established anthropological claim that non‐Western peoples are free from the traps of dualistic thinking. Although Vezo informants in Madagascar produce statements that could be used to support such a claim, experimental procedures that target their inferential reasoning reveal that they systematically differentiate between mind and body, between the biological processes that determine the organism and the social processes that shape personhood. This suggests that there is a significant discrepancy between people’s explicit linguistic statements and their implicit theoretical knowledge. Moreover, developmental data show that such implicit theoretical presuppositions are essential to the production and transmission of cultural knowledge. Thus, Vezo children, who do not as yet differentiate between the biological mechanism of birth and the social mechanism of nurture, are still unable to grasp a salient aspect of Vezo culture, namely the causally integrated set of ideas that guide the way adults classify the social world. These findings have significant theoretical and methodological implications for the constitution of anthropological knowledge.
Anthropology combines two quite different enterprises: the ethnographic study of particular people in particular places and the theorizing about the human species. As such, anthropology is part of cognitive science in that it contributes to the unitary theoretical aim of understanding and explaining the behavior of the animal species Homo sapiens. This article draws on our own research experience to illustrate that cooperation between anthropology and the other sub-disciplines of cognitive science is possible and fruitful, but it must proceed from the recognition of anthropology's unique epistemology and methodology.
We welcome the critical appraisal of the database used by the behavioral sciences, but we suggest that the authors' differentiation between variable and universal features is ill conceived and that their categorization of non-WEIRD populations is misleading. We propose a different approach to comparative research, which takes population variability seriously and recognizes the methodological difficulties it engenders.
The present article examines how people's belief in an afterlife, as well as closely related supernatural beliefs, may open an empirical backdoor to our understanding of the evolution of human social cognition. Recent findings and logic from the cognitive sciences contribute to a novel theory of existential psychology, one that is grounded in the tenets of Darwinian natural selection. Many of the predominant questions of existential psychology strike at the heart of cognitive science. They involve: causal attribution (why is mortal behavior represented as being causally related to one's afterlife? how are dead agents envisaged as communicating messages to the living?), moral judgment (why are certain social behaviors, i.e., transgressions, believed to have ultimate repercussions after death or to reap the punishment of disgruntled ancestors?), theory of mind (how can we know what it is "like" to be dead? what social-cognitive strategies do people use to reason about the minds of the dead?), concept acquisition (how does a common-sense dualism interact with a formalized socio-religious indoctrination in childhood? how are supernatural properties of the dead conceptualized by young minds?), and teleological reasoning (why do people so often see their lives as being designed for a purpose that must be accomplished before they perish? how do various life events affect people's interpretation of this purpose?), among others. The central thesis of the present article is that an organized cognitive "system" dedicated to forming illusory representations of (1) psychological immortality, (2) the intelligent design of the self, and (3) the symbolic meaning of natural events evolved in response to the unique selective pressures of the human social environment.
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