Workshop on "Naturalistic Approaches to Culture?"

Balatonvilágos, Hungary, 4-7 September 2011

Scientific background and objective

The main aim of the workshop was to explore the possibilities and limitations of naturalistic approaches to mind and culture. The most important new vistas arise from modern evolutionary theory but the issues also have, in the background, the traditional debates on reductionism and biological determinism. Two broad kinds of approaches were discussed and compared:

1. Biological constraints on culture

During the past two decades with the advent of evolutionary psychology and related developments a new serious challenge has been made regarding the biological routing of some of the most cherished cultural achievements and features of humans. This challenge basically involves the idea that some of our cultural habits and propensities are the results of interactions between biological constraints and cultural shaping, rather then being constructed by culture alone.

2. Cultural shaping of nature

Many scientists and scholars have argued, on the other hand, that the notions of the “biological” and the “cultural” are based on dualistic thinking that is increasingly problematic, given the human refashioning of nature both through the “culturing” of natural environment and life itself and through human impacts on global climate and environment. Thus, many scholars have found it necessary to speak of “naturecultures” and “biosocialities”.

The two above broad paradigms need to be thoroughly discussed, annotated by some of the technical barriers to understanding. For one major obstacle to a better understanding and collaboration between naturalistic and cultural/humanities scholars is that of differences in methods and approach. This constitutes a barrier for communication within the sub-disciplines in naturalistic domains and across the naturalistic and cultural fields.

Some of the challenging issues involved are:

  • the “natural” origin and “biology” of sociality

  • the naturalistic origins of human cognitive capacities, including cultural phenomena such as art, literature, music, etc. 

  • the usefulness of the concepts of “naturecultures” and “biosocialities”

  • the interface between biological evolution and cultural evolution

  • adaptation as exaptation in explaining culture

  • biological (most importantly neural and genetic) determinism and the prediction of human behavior

  • universal and specific aspects of cultural systems such as languages

  • the neural circuitry of primary (language like) and secondary (writing like) cultural systems

Structure of the workshop programme

Six key presenters using different perspectives and methods – ranging from network theory through developmental psychology and anthropology - shall tackle the above issues.

Each key presenter prepared a summary statement of no more than 5 pages, sort of thesis, that was circulated beforehand. The presenters were given 50 minutes to support their theses, followed by a short discussion.  Then, on each working day, a panel discussion of the key notions of the nature/culture interface followed. In the evening a student session challenged the presenters on the part of the junior participants. Each discussion and student session had e a named discussant who started the discussions with challenging ideas.

Keynote speakers:

  • Gergely Csibra, Cognitive Development Center, Central European University, Budapest 
  • Nick Enfield, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, The Netherlands
  • Ágnes Kovács, Cognitive Development Center, Central European University, Budapest 
  • Olivier Morin, Institut Jean Nicod, Paris
  • Eugenia Ramirez-Goicoechea, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, Spain
  • Peter Richerson, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis

Please click here to view the speakers' biographies.

The book of abstracts can be downloaded here.

The programme is available here.

Programme Committee

  • Professor Csaba Pléh, Budapest University of Technology and Economics (Chair)
  • Professor Gísli Pálsson, Department of Anthropology, University of Iceland
  • Professor Alain Peyraube  CNRS, Paris
  • Professor Matti Sintonen, Department of Philosophy, University of Helsinki

Call for Participation

A group of 17 early career researchers was selected by open competition and invited to participate in the event, including the presentation of a poster.

The original Call for Participation can be downloaded here.


For further information about the workshop, you may contact:

Local Contacts: 

Professor Csaba Pléh 
Ms Judit Fazakas

ESF Contact: