Timothy Ingold on The Social Brain

At the 2010 “Great Expectations” conference, Timothy Ingold took on Robin Dunbar’s Social Brain Hypothesis, and expanded on his own views of how we can better understand the brain as truly social. As he says early on in the talk, “I’ll attempt to show that the brain is social because life is.”

You can access the entire lecture here; better, the entire talk has been uploaded to YouTube in a series of seven videos, covering all of Ingold’s talk and the extensive question and answer afterwards. I present them to you below.

Ingold – Social Brain – Part One

On Dunbar’s Social Brain Hypothesis:

This is a hypothesis to which I am resolutely opposed. I think it is dreadful. On the one hand it reduces the social to the operative, and on the other hand it elevates the brain to the executive, making social life look like the aggregate effect of brains telling their owners what to do.

And with that rousing introduction, Ingold goes on to provide more background about how we think of the mind and brain as social, including covering the basics of what Robin Dunbar proposes – that we have big brains because we need them to manage all the information related to living in large primate social groups, including being able to calculate what others are doing and making sure social relations advance our own evolutionary ends.

Ingold – Social Brain – Part Two

Here Ingold summarizes the three things wrong with Dunbar’s approach: the opposition between social and ecological, the mind as reducible to solely internal processing, and the slicing of the brain away from the body.

He then gets into the opposition made between the social and the ecological. With a view of social as relating, we can come to realize that “ecological” means relating as well – dogs are part of our social life, and human-animal relations have a long evolutionary history.

Thus, Ingold is contrasting the different approaches that can be built from seeing the social as meaning “relations” in the sense of qualities of agency, speech, and feeling that are intrinsic to how we relate as humans, versus another picture of social, based on types of beings – “relations with conspecifics” – that is more specific to evolutionary biology.

Ingold – Social Brain – Part Three

Since hearing, seeing, touch, posture, gesture, and so on are all forms of movement, the social should be open to all beings that move, and that being endowed with perceptual systems, respond to each other’s movements. Or in a word, it should be open to all animate beings. Or in short: To be social is to be alive, alive in and alive to the surrounding environment.

Here Ingold delivers his most potent critique of the information-processing view of cognition, taking information in from the world, reworking it, and sending out outputs, that ties together almost all computational models, from evolutionary psychology’s domain-specific algorithms to the connectionists’ system of internal weights and network nodes.

Rather ironically, Dunbar’s social brain is unequivocally individual and not social. It might be social in its functions or its effects, but it is individual in its constitution and its mode of existence. It is quite unequivocally in here,” as Ingold points to the diagram he drew on the board, The Mind in a Box, “while the social stuff is going on out there,” the world of the broader blackboard.

Ingold – Social Brain – Part Four

In the last part of his lecture, Ingold covers his own view of how we might conceive the relations between brain, mind, and social environment. It opens:

The deep-seated assumption that mind is an internal property of individuals that can be studied in isolation from their involvement with one another and with the wider environment continues to reverberate in the field of mainstream psychology. It, however, has been widely challenged, and ever more so.

He also provides a good summary of his main overall argument:

I take the word ‘social’ to denote a certain ontology, an understanding of the constitution of the phenomenal world itself. As such, it is opposed to an ontology of the particulate, that imagines a world of individual entities, each of which is linked through external contact that leaves its basic nature unaffected… That is how we should understand a brain, as a process of enfolding life into itself.

Ingold – Social Brain – Part Five

This part literally contains the last thirty seconds or so of the lecture, followed by the start of the interesting question-and-answer discussion. Ingold ends:

Of course the brain is embodied, but it is only embodied because the body itself is enworlded. Thanks very much.

Ingold – Social Brain – Part Six: Continued Question and Answer with the Audience

Ingold – Social Brain – Part Seven: Final Comment from Audience

We have been having a good discussion of Ingold’s work on the Neuroanthropology Interest Group site, based on Ingold’s essay “Beyond Biology and Culture. The Meaning of Evolution in a Relational World” (pdf here). Ingold’s article “Becoming Persons: Consciousness and Sociality in Human Evolution” also came up in the discussion.

Greg had a good summary comment there about Ingold’s approach to biological and evolutionary research of the type represented by Dunbar.

I have always found Ingold very helpful. However, he often writes in a critical mode, where what he objects to can be clearer than what he’s advocating. In addition, I would argue that some of the discussion of ‘embodiment’ in anthropology is more metaphoric than meticulous, more likely to use figures of speech (‘inscription,’ ‘sedimentation’) than to actually get into the biological processes through which behaviour or training or ideas can influence neurological or physiological development.

Finally, Graeson Harris-Young provided this nice little summary of the relevance of Ingold. I’ll leave it at that.

For Ingold, biology and culture are thickly intertwined. He is placing the social/cultural story back ‘in to nature,’ back in to the narrative of evolution.

Full abstract to Ingold’s The Social Brain lecture:

According to the so-called ‘social brain’ hypothesis, the expansion of the neocortex in human evolution is an adaptive response to the demands of managing social relationships in groups of increasing size. To simultaneously process and manipulate information about multiple relationships, it is argued, calls for a brain with formidable computing power.

In this lecture I show that the hypothesis is misconceived in three respects. First, it rests on a false opposition between social and ecological relations. Second, it wrongly assumes that the workings of the mind can be equated with the operation of neural machinery internal to the organism. Third, treating the brain as a computational organ, it artificially divides the brain from the body that responds to its commands.

I argue, to the contrary, that the brain is not an organ but an entanglement of neural tissue, that the patterns of activation in this tissue are inseparable from those conducted throughout the body, and that these patterns spill out into the world along lines of movement and growth. As a knotting together of these lines, the brain is social in a sense more fundamental than that envisaged by ‘social brain’ theorists. Indeed the sociality of the brain is none other than that of life itself.

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5 Responses to Timothy Ingold on The Social Brain

  1. Terrific Post! Hope a wide range of folks take the time to read this, watch the videos, and truly think about how we can do an integrative anthropology as opposed to oppositional or reductive anthropologies.

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  2. That was a very interesting talk. My morning has been enriched.

    Consider this paper as a treatment of some of the same themes at the level of molecular biology and microbiology.

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  3. GTChristie says:

    I would argue that some of the discussion of ‘embodiment’ in anthropology is more metaphoric than meticulous, more likely to use figures of speech (‘inscription,’ ‘sedimentation’) than to actually get into the biological processes

    This is an interesting snippet because Ingold’s points are not radical or exceptionally novel, but rather corrective, especially in correcting the context in which the brain is enculturated. The auditor or reader already understands (for instance) “social” and “encultured brain” and “ecology” etc as concepts but might order their relationships differently from Ingold’s picture. Note the neologisms Ingold uses to convey the corrective picture (which is, mostly, a re-nuancing of the current picture). Often there are not formal/technical terms (ie well-accepted terms) to convey a new idea — there’s no language for some of his re-nuancing. The neologisms are tools to paint the picture, for which later there might be technical descriptions. So the snippet above, at least as it seems to me, only points out that so far there is no dogmatic vocabulary (because there needs to be more work). In a sense, Ingold is a pioneer in a land already discovered — re-pioneering. It’s no fault of a trailblazer not to have names for all the flora and fauna seen in the new territory. The value is in the improved navigation of the landscape and I think Ingold has got the idea extremely well. If I may say so, it’s more holistic than other views and that characteristic should indicate he’s heading in the right direction, even without a complete map.

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  4. One problem with Ingold’s arguments is that sometimes, as fascinating they might be,they tend to what I would call “New Ageism”.
    I think that although philosophically interesting, Ingold’s criticism of Dunber’s hypotesis lacks substance in some relevant aspects. Ingold fascinates but does not convince.

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