Welcome back all! Today’s episode is a conversation with Dr. Manvir Singh. Manvir recently finished his PhD in Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, and will soon begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. Manvir studies human culture. In particular, he focuses on certain cultural practices and products that spring up over and over again across the world’s societies—often in strikingly similar form. To explain these similarities, Manvir appeals to the human mind. He argues that our universal mental machinery plays a powerful role in molding our cultural traditions and products.
We start by diving deep into the topic of shamanism. We talk about why humans around the world have long put their trust in shamans—and why they still do today. We discuss why it is that, to secure that trust, shamans everywhere enter trance states, deny themselves worldly comforts, and undergo harrowing initiation rituals. We then move beyond shamanism. We talk about why we believe in witches and why we like stories about orphans and other sympathetic characters. We consider why people the world over know a lullaby when they hear one.
Part of what I admire about Manvir’s work is his balanced interest in both universal cultural patterns and fine-grained particulars. He’s interested in the forest, definitely, but also in the trees. And, trust me, there are a lot of fascinating trees here.
Hope you enjoy this one as much as I did. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Dr. Manvir Singh.