Stewart Brand: Four sides to climate change – but which four?

Credit: D Sharon PruittStewart Brand (whom, incidentally, we have to thank for the ‘whole earth’ photo at the Fourcultures masthead) wrote an op-ed recently in which he identified four types of climate change talk, based on two scales, scientists-politicians and agreement-disagreement. This produced four poles, not merely two. They are:

  • denialists (ideological disagreement)
  • skeptics (scientific disagreement)
  • warners (scientific agreement)
  • calamatists (ideological agreement)

This is a very worthwhile attempt at getting some subtlety into the standoff between the naysayers and the yeasayers. But frankly, I think the existing typology of Grid-Group Cultural Theory does a more parsimonious job of this, at the same time as giving us more information about the motives and practices of the proponents and their institutions.

This typology, derived from the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas,  can be summarised as:

  • Indvidualist (low grid-low group)
  • Egalitarian (low grid-high group)
  • Hierarchical (high grid-high group)
  • Fatalist (high grid-low group)

Fourcultures has recently called these four approaches expanders, restrainers, managers and shruggers.

There’s more about whether climate change or its denial is a ‘new religion

and about climate change responses as four types of deviance (reflecting the work of Robert K Merton rather than Mary Douglas).


On the science and politics of climate change

photo of Mike HulmeMike Hulme, author of the splendid Why We Disagree about Climate Change, has written a very measured op-ed about the theft of his emails from the University of East Anglia and the relationship between science and politics in the climate change debate.

Fourcultures has previously written about:

  • Mike Hulme’s book, Why we Disagree about Climate Change
  • a critique of the idea that climate change deniers are necessarily acting in bad faith
  • the climate change debate as an exercise in four types of deviance
  • and quite a lot more on the social aspects of climate change.

Making up the facts about climate change?

Climate Change Factors

Upton Sinclair said

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Let’s just try to understand a fairly straightforward question. I don’t mean straightforward as in ‘easy to determine’ , but as in ‘you’d think it might have a definite, clear answer’. Here it is:

How much carbon dioxide do volcanoes emit?

This seems exactly the kind of question we should be able to answer if we want to be able to say anything serious about climate change (see the top left box of the diagram). It also seems to be the kind of thing that scientific observation and measurement ought to be able to help us with.

Furthermore, it would in principle be perfectly reasonable to conclude that we don’t actually have an answer yet because it’s just too hard to measure volcanoes with existing methods and technology. A little humility never hurt anyone.

So here goes with the answer. Continue reading “Making up the facts about climate change?”

Which of my identities takes precedence?

Mort recently asked the following:

Where does cultural cognition reside?Is it within the individual or their cultural environ – the social assumptions and influences that we are surrounded by?
Which of my identities takes precedence, me the autonomous decision maker, or me the social role?

Thanks for reading and for your encouragement Mort. I think your question is very important. Much of our discussion about human interaction assumes the basic unit is the individual, somehow isolated from their environment. Economics has been particularly successful at describing the world in terms of the utility-maximising rational individual. Psychology has progressed on the assumption that much of what matters about human behaviour is to be found inside individual brains. As a broadly sociological theory , though, Cultural Theory is compatible with the sociological idea that the basic unit of study is not the individual alone, but the person-in-relationship. In other words it is held that what is distinctive is our connections, that without taking account of my context I can hardly make sense of ‘me’. For a long time this was problematic – there were many debates about the relative significance of ‘structure’ (the context) and ‘agency’ (the actions of people in, and sometimes in spite of, that context). Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory was just one of many attempts to connect the vision of the individual with the vision of the social. Most were rather unsatisfactory. A few changes in the last decade or so have shifted these debates quite dramatically.
First there is the rise of social network theory. This studies the links between people and has lately grown in importance. You can see that if you study the links you no longer ask ‘is it the individual or the group that matters?’ Studying the ties, the relationships, tells us something about both the groups and the individuals that we wouldn’t have grasped otherwise.
Second, there is the rise of evolutionary psychology. This argues that some of what we previously took to be humans making choices about their circumstances can actually be explained in biological terms. But note that just as it takes some of the explanatory power away from ‘society’, it also offers new scope for social factors to be influencing biology, for if adaptation is a key mechanism, then the environment of evolutionary adaptedness is a central consideration.
Third, sitting within this biologocal turn, but worth noting in its own right is the advance of game theory. This has shown that mechanisms other than genetic heredity and mutation can impact on evolution. Games are entirely social/relational and not biological, and yet they have the capacity to influence biology through evolution.
Each of these frameworks of research is reconfiguring, sometimes quite radically, our ideas about what makes up the ‘individual’ and what makes up the ‘social’. Many of our ideas from the past are no longer viable and we are still coming to terms with this. But also, many of these new ideas are contested within their own fields and many issues are far from settled.
Grid-group cultural theory was developed before some of the importance of these big shifts became apparent and basically sits within what evolutionary psychologists like to to call the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), which they challenge. My own view is that it can make a distinctive contribution. I am exploring the idea that the four cultures described by Mary Douglas, her collaborators and followers can be reframed as examples of ‘ecologically adaptive heuristics’ as described by psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer.

Further, as I have previously written:

there surely is an important and little understood link between the human and the natural sciences to which Cultural Theory may contribute something. I’m pretty certain it has something reasonably substantial to contribute to what Paul E Griffiths and Karola Stotz call ‘biohumanities‘. My hunch, further, is that grid-group cultural theory might be open to game-theoretical modelling, and that this would then offer something to evolutionary theory, in the way that Axelrod’s evolution of cooperation did. Specifically it might further develop some of the ideas of Brian Skyrms on the Stag Hunt and the evolution of culture.

There is a good summary of Douglas and Ney’s Missing Persons (1998), which points to some of this.

And since you mentioned coutural cognition, you should go straight to the fount of wisdom on this: The Cultural Cognition Project.

Do genes drive culture? New developments in culture-gene coevolutionary theory

A recently published  research paper lends support to the idea that genes and culture influence one another mutually, effectively co-evolving. A link has been proposed between the collectivism-individualism scale of national cultures and a gene that affects the supply of seratonin to the body, the seratonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR. A media-friendly summary of the research is available. On the background to biocultural anthropology see Bindon (2007).

The method used for measuring culture is interesting and fairly well documented (Hofstede 2001; Hofstede and McRae 2004). The individualism-collectivism scale is similar to the ‘group’ dimension in Grid-Group Cultural Theory.

This leads to a number of questions:

  1. If 5-HTTLPR can be seen as a ‘group’ gene (i.e. its prevalence is correlated with a communal rather than individual culture), does this mean we should now be looking for a ‘grid’ gene, to confirm or deny the typology of Cultural Theory? To be specific, the individualist-collectivist scale only allows for one type of collectivist culture (ie. collectivist) whereas from a Cultural Theory perspective there is clearly more than one basic type, namely Hierarchical collectivism (high grid) and Egalitarian collectivism (low grid). It is hard to say prima facie that these two types are so similar to one another that no further distinction needs to be made. The same goes for the two types of individualist cultural bias, Fatalist (high grid) and Individualist (low grid).
  2. Or, if the group dimension needs to be augmented with the grid dimension, what does this mean for the results of a study that claims to have described regional cultures in terms of only one dimension? It was anthropologist Mary Douglas’s claim that the group dimension, individualism-collectivism, was not on its own enough to describe cultural biases, and that a fourfold typology was necessary. If this is so, we could hypothesise that in the seratonin study, there will be interference caused by the unexamined ‘grid’ dimension, that needs to be controlled for, or otherwise accounted for.
  3. The argument of the paper is strongly functionalist. That is, culture is seen to have a clear function in relation to the mental health and genetic makeup of individuals, and reciprocally, genetic makeup is seen to have a function in relation to mental health within its cultural context.  This seems to have implications for the ways in which Grid-group cultural theory might develop in engagement with genetic and other biological studies of this kind.
  4. The paper also accepts fairly uncritically the claim of ‘cultural consonance’, that where individuals, in their own beliefs and behaviours, conform to widely shared cultural models, there is a lower incidence of psychological distress (Dressler et al. 2007). I’m concerned about the normative implications of such a claim, that cultural consonance (and possibly cultural conformity) might be seen as desirable because it reduces psychological distress. This contrasts with, for instance, Robert K Merton’s views of deviance, in which besides conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion are alternative was of engaging with cultural norms and goals.


Bindon, James R. (2007). “Biocultural linkages — cultural consensus, cultural consonance, and human biological research”. Collegium Antropologicum 31: 3–10.

Joan Y. Chiao and Katherine D. Blizinsky
Culture–gene coevolution of individualism–collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene Proc. R. Soc. B published online before print October 28, 2009, doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.1650

Dressler, William W., Mauro C. Balieiro, Rosane P. Ribeiro and José Ernesto Dos Santos (2007) Cultural consonance and psychological distress: examining the associations in multiple cultural domains. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, Volume 31, Issue 2, 195 – 224.

Hofstede, G (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hofstede, G. & McCrae, R. (2004) Personality and culture revisited: linking traits and dimensions of culture. Cross-Cult. Res. 38, 52–88.

Two kinds of tales, one true and one false

More on truth and lies:

‘There are two kinds of tales, one true and one false,’ Socrates claims in Plato’s Republic (trans A.D. Lindsay, 1935, London: Dent, p. 376).

‘The depth of consciousness created by the exercise of the arts of deception is the first arena for the practice of that dissimulation proper to the life of human intelligence. The same spirit permeates other expositions, for instance that of Karl Popper, who equates the capacity to lie with the capacity to imagine: the power to imagine other things, to negate, and thereby to create fiction, even hypothesis – and thence to create science’. (John Forrester 1997 Truth Games: Lies, Money, and Psychoanalysis, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 9)

What, according to Nietszche, the Greeks admired in Odysseus;

‘his capacity for lying, and for cunning, his ability to be, when need be, whatever he chose’ (Frederich Nietzsche 1974 The Gay Science, trans Walter Kaufman, New York: Random House, p. 156).

These quotations are to be found in :

Linda Neil (2009) Beautiful lies my father told me. TEXT Special Issue No 5 The Art of the Real April

Now read: Truth and Lies

The Ethics of Autonomous robots

Further to a recent post about the ethics of autonomous robots, it seems military robots are not the only kind that can kill, allbeit by ‘mistake’. In Japan there are already robots that feed the elderly and baby-sitting robots in shopping centres. So who exactly should be held responsible when they go wrong? It’s an issue that has concerned Noel Sharkey of Sheffield University for a while (he and Ronald Arkin were interviewed for the radio recently), and now the Royal Academy of Engineering has weighed in with a discussion report.

Autonomous Systems: Social, Legal & Ethical Issues, commissioned by the Academy’s Engineering Ethics Working Group, is online at

It’s an interesting read, but it doesn’t begin to ask the kind of questions grid-group cultural theory might…. Continue reading “The Ethics of Autonomous robots”

Nipping and Biting: Characterising the Conflict between Science and Religion

Much of the supposed conflict between science and religion may well be imaginary, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any conflict.

How then should this conflict be characterised?

Gregory Bateson once noted the distinction in playful animals between the nip (playful) and the bite (serious). It’s clear that animals, including ourselves, can tell the difference, but how? How do they (we) make the transition between ‘this is play’ and ‘is this play?’?
Bateson famously summed up his observation of monkeys at the San Francisco zoo as follows:

“the playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite” (p.180).

This has a great deal to tell us about the science and religion debate. Continue reading “Nipping and Biting: Characterising the Conflict between Science and Religion”

Niche construction: what does it tell us about culture?

Meika recently posted a comment on this site, highlighting the concept of niche construction as a driver of evolution.
I found it fascinating, which, partly is why it’s taken me so long to respond. (The other reason is a total computer melt down). Anyway, I’m intrigued with the niche construction material, which I hadn’t come across. I’d agree with the authors of the book that this area is worthy of greater study, but can’t help wondering whether it really does constitute a new way of looking at evolution… Continue reading “Niche construction: what does it tell us about culture?”