Sperber, Dan

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SPERBER, DAN (1942– ), French social and cognitive scientist. His father was the Galician-born novelist and essayist Manès Sperber. Born in France, Dan Sperber was educated at the Sorbonne, where he earned a Licence ès Lettres in 1962, and at Oxford, where he received a B.Litt. in 1968. The director of research at the Centre National de Recherches Scientifiques (cnrs) in Paris, Sperber was well known for his work in developing what he terms an "epidemiology of representations" in his naturalistic theory of culture.

Sperber's early research focused on the anthropology of religion from the perspective of innate mental structures; he argues that these structures have played an important role in the development of religious beliefs and in the way that beliefs "fixate" in the human mind and are "extraordinarily catching." His studies of linguistics, experimental psychology, the philosophy of science, and evolutionary biology led to his further exploration of cultural theory, using a naturalistic approach linked to evolution. His works include Rethinking Symbolism (1975); On Anthropological Knowledge (1985); and Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach (1996). His "epidemiology of representations," which may be conceived as a "contagion" of ideas, concerns the processes of replication and transformation of cultural beliefs, which Sperber likens to models of the transmission of disease.

Sperber also developed, with British linguist Deirdre Wilson, a cognitive approach to communication that has become known as "relevance theory." Their 1986 work, Relevance: Communication and Cognition, has received much attention; their theory, though influential, has also generated controversy, as has Sperber's "epidemiology of representations." In Relevance, the authors argue that human cognition relies on perceived relevance: that humans pay attention only to information that seems relevant. The work also approaches the study of reasoning by considering the role of contextual information, and questions contemporary views on the nature of verbal comprehension.

Sperber was a visiting lecturer at several institutions, including Cambridge University, the British Academy, the London School of Economics, the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, the University of Michigan, the University of Bologna, the University of Hong Kong, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.

[Dorothy Bauhoff (2nd ed.)]