THE MODELING SPECIES
A commented review
by Nold Egenter
"Modeling is a good candidate for a basic activity of mind." What does this mean?
A sentence caught up from Naomi Campbell at a fashion show? Some citation from a
famous artist fascinated by 'modelling' bodies? Or is it taken from an architectural
magazine characterising the conviction that the complexity of design can only be done through
the modeling type of thought? In short, it is a key sentence found in an editorial
written by an anthropologist, Bradd Shore, for "The Semiotic Review of Books" (3.9.99). The title is "The Modelling Species. Humans in general are implied. Shore proposes
the "idea that all humans understand the world through models or schemes ..." Having
its gravity point essentially in cognitive anthropology and psychology the essay
opens up some very interesting perspectives.
Naturally the term model in this framework is wide. It implies not simply the 'tools'
of science, the molecular models of physics, chemistry and biology, nor those used
by architects and urbanists or fashion designers. Kant's categories of the mind are
also considered as models, as well as Frederick Bartletts 'mental schemes' or even Ruth
Benedict's 'patterns of culture'. Shore clearly indicates the direction towards
an anthropology of cognition. An anthropology of the brain?
Most important: "The human brain is a virtuoso modeler, constructing models from
external input, reading models already in the environment, storing models for future
use and accessing pre-stored models as interpretive tools." Input/Output. Shore describes this outside-inside relation through the capacity of the human cortex. Inside, "the
brain is constantly generating models in the form of electrochemical patterns - neural
networks. The brain is also continually monitoring the external world through its
sensory portals, seeking patterns in the world to model neurally. When our brains can
match external patterns with those already stored in memory, we get 'meaning'."
Shore goes on then to deal in more detail with what he considers as models. Scientific
models or theories can be considered as such. Abstract data like equations, statistical
patterns, case studies, etc., all can be considered as models, schemes. Important for social studies are also family patterns, personality structures, cycles of
economic behaviour, patterns of language use, etc.. "If human behaviour were not
already patterned, social scientists would not have anything to discover." Similarly,
artists and designers work with models, "create new models out of old ones." Shore considers
even aesthetics as "probably conditioned by the human penchant for finding emotional
and intellectual meaning in models. Further, anthropologists and psychologists in
the domain of cognition work with models. "Culture may be thought of as a vast stock
of models used by communities to understand and manipulate the world in a more or
less coordinated way." In studying models with models we "make models about people's
Doubtless, Shore's attempt to generalise the term model or scheme into an all-embracing
validity is puzzling. On the other hand there are evident phenomena like the facial
gestalt, or emotional expressions shared by most humans as mental schemes. Maybe
the advantage of the term consists in its openness. It is not structured like 'structure',
not textured like 'patterns', it simply rests on more or less precise analogies.
It is evidently this quantitative minimum of definition which supports Shore's wide
domain of model perception and conception. Clearly it is at the same time the source
of its strength. "Cultural models serve a wide variety of cognitive and social functions..."
Shore sums them up as orientation, conceptualisation, communication and control." Evidently he implies a fully fledged cognitive cultural anthropology with these
four terms. "Man the modeling species"!
Shore's attempt is fairly bold in the wide horizons it tries to cover. And it is true
that at first sight, he packs very heterogeneous things into the same parcel. But
overall it is somehow convincing. It provides a general condition with wide-reaching
implications. Modeling seems to be a basic activity of the human mind.
In the following, a second layer is spread over his domain, a five-fold typology giving
contrasting expressions for their characterisation, thus indicating also that they
cannot be clearly defined. They have to be understood as interactive complementary
domains. This framework is very important.
Following his 'outside/inside' interaction scheme of the brain he gives two basic
types of models: 'models-in-the-world' and 'models-in-the-mind
'. The former are "instituted models, .. public artefacts", reaching from material
objects to gestures, words, rituals and everyday conventional routines like 'sales
meetings' and 'breakfast'." The latter 'models in the mind' imply the creative way
towards the outside, "words or paintings, dramas or gestures...mind made matter." Evidently
both model types are intimately related, they have a complementary relationship.
Important is also the distinction of what Shore calls the "user's model" and the "generalised" mode
l, giving a city map as an example. The latter, the generalised model, is the map
with its multi-perspective birds-eye view, the former corresponds to the person standing
factually in some spot of a city, trying to locate his position, either referring
to the map in a generalised sense or feeding his orientation as a 'user' empirically
with landmarks. Evidently, Shore describes a powerful instrument, the tensions between
a socially designed generalised" map and the personal experiences within this urban
space and its factual arrangements. This tension between different models can be related
to the whole body of modern existence, particularly in educational systems.
Shore gives a further contrasting or complementary pair of descriptive and prescriptive models
. Descriptive types indicate a pre-existing reality like the description, sketch
or photograph of a landscape. Prescriptive models correspond to ideas of architects
and planners. An existing reality is modeled for transformation. In this "give-and-take
between prescriptive and descriptive models", Shore mentions the "key role" of analogy,
without, however, explaining its function. He relates it psychologically to "creative
intelligence". Analogies are used "as a bridge to something new". We will develop
this point further below.
In fact, up to now, all types of models are similar. All are per-/conceptional relations
of individual and social existence in environmental space. The indication of analogy
remains vague. This corresponds to the openness of the term model. Taken as a whole, the scheme is plausible.
Not very convincing, however, is the distinction between mechanical and statistical models
derived from Lévy-Strauss, mainly because his structuralism overestimated the relevance
Interesting, on the other hand, is the conclusion, the final distinction of the "categorical" and the "epidemiological" model of culture.
The latter corresponds fairly to what is called diffusion' in ethnology. Shore calls
categorical the 'folk model' of culture, evidently the professional static image.
"Epidemiological models suggest gradients, clines and other features of statistical
distributions. They lack the precise boundaries of categorical models." Shore maintains
that the divergence between the factual, but highly abstracted diffusionist concept
and the "rather neat categorical folk models" even anthropologists seem to cherish,
is one of the main factors "why some complex concepts (like 'culture' or 'race') are
subject to habitual misrepresentation."
But let us conclude, for the moment leaving open this very important question of whether
incompatible models blur our views. Shore's dominant use of psychology and neurology
is clear. Evolution endowed our species with the ability to project our internal
models into material forms." But this is only one side. Shore takes a striking turn.
"The sapient hominid is also Homo faber- maker of artefacts. Our penchant for physical
modeling is built into our hands, with their opposable thumbs and precision grip.
With the help of a big forebrain, humans extended these manipulative capabilities through
the invention of tools, both physical and symbolic."
Evidently, the intermingling fields of anthropology and psychology allow important
constructions, but this is not without problems. The wide definition of the term
model including objective types and abstracted meanings in the sense of 'scheme',
allows us to describe an extremely wide field of 'modeling'. In fact, a fully fledged anthropology
is in view, "man the modeling species. On the other hand, this extremely wide definition
leaves us with a tremendous variety of potential models, a wide typology of schemes. However, it does not give us answers to the question: why is man a modeling
species? How did 'models-in-the-world become 'models-in-the-mind' in such great quantity?
In his outlook on prehistory, Shore refers to the toolmaker concept, indicating that
tools can also be taken as symbols. It is this which is the weak part of Shore's
essay. Legitimate in psychology in view of the high elasticity of its terms - its
emphasis is on an enormously wide spectrum of essentially synchronous data. On the other
hand, in the diachronical domain, particularly in regard to prehistory, it is limited
to the 'homo faber' in the narrow sense of the toolmaker. For Shore, the term "adaptive intelligence" seems to bridge the gap between the Miocene nutcrackers and ant fishers
and modern society with its endless manifold of 'modeling' capacities! But, evidently,
this is fairly unbalanced, thus theoretically not convincing. Cognitive processes 'created' the cortex. But, what was the relevant mover?
Maybe the expression "modeling species" has better chances if it is connected to another
interface in regard to its past conditions: the anthropology of demarcated settlement
(architecture and habitat anthropology). Surveying various domains (ethno-pre-history, anthropology and primatology) and using new methods, this approach reconstructs
a constructive hominid tradition which uses fibrous materials or "[pre-]lithic fibroconstructive
industries" (hand as the first 'tool'!). Particularly the study "Habitat anthropology and the anthropological definition of material culture" shows that such
fibrous constructions ('semantic architecture') might have been an important factor
in Palaeolithic developments, particularly in view of increasing control of food
resources (semantic types of 'tectiforms').
Further, fibroconstructive demarcations are
also highly valid in explaining processes of Meso and Neolithic sedentarisation.
Most important is their structural potential to assume bipartite 'structuro-symbolic'
forms. They might have acted as "models" for the perception of natural forms using 'categorical
polarity' as the basis of comparison, thus allowing analogies. Ethnologically, it
can clearly be shown that such fibrous artefacts primarily used as territorial markers, enter into dialogue with 'natural' forms like plants [tree], animals [bird,
snake, fish], even geotectonic (mountain) or cosmological forms (sun, star; Egenter
Based on various arguments (e.g. technological, functional), such results
can be interpreted diachronically as processes of a cognitive evolution of man. The approach
provides indicators as to how natural forms like trees, birds, snakes, fish, mountains
etc. were 'discovered' by hominids: they had a "model", namely fibrous signs and
symbols that functionally constituted their system of territorial organisation and orientation.
Most important: their polar structure gave birth to analogy, to cognitive concepts
like 'the general and the particular' (Egenter 1994). Thus, with this new method of habitat research, Bradd Shore's hypothesis "man the modeling species" would gain
surprising support. Man's tremendous modeling capacity might have had a very ancient
- Probably we should urgently re-evaluate prehistory. Very likely it was
a time of tremendously intensive discoveries: 'the natural form perception period'!
tremendous increase of brain size is probably its most convincing support!
In short, Bradd Shore's condensed hypothesis might be an access path towards this
re-evaluation of prehistory suggesting plausibly "man [as] the modeling species"!
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