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Many Minds

Jul 15, 2020

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.


A transcript of this interview is available here.


Notes and links

3:00 – An 1896 article by Frans Boaz titled, ‘The limitations of the comparative method in anthropology.’

6:15 – Read Dr. Singh’s article, ‘The cultural evolution of shamanism.’

20:45 – A popular article by Dr. Singh on money managers as modern shamans.

24:30 – On the question of whether magicians believe in their own powers, see Nicholas Humphrey’s essay ‘Behold the Man: Human Nature and Supernatural Belief’ in his book, The Mind Made Flesh.

27:45 – See James Scott’s book, Against the Grain.

30:10 – See Dr. Singh’s recently published study of costly prohibitions among Mentawai shamans.

34:45 – See here for Franz Boas’s account of a Kwakiutl shaman.

37:15 – For the etymology of the word “shaman,” see here and here.

38:00 – See Dr. Singh’s in-press paper on witches here.

44:30 – E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s book, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande.

49:45 – A popular article by Dr. Singh about the ongoing persecution of people perceived as witches.

52:50 – Read a Dr. Singh’s essay in Aeon on the sympathetic plot. See also his pre-print on the same topic.

59:40 – A study of the appeal of minimally counter-intuitive ideas.

1:04:10 – An article by Dr. Singh and colleagues on how songs serving similar functions (e.g., lullabies) tend to take similar forms around the world. Read a popular article write-up of the work here.


Manvir Singh’s end-of-show recommendations:

Explaining Culture by Dan Sperber

The Social Order of the Underworld by David Skarbek

The best way to keep up with Dr. Singh is on Twitter: @mnvrsngh. You can also learn more about his work at his personal website:


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted by Kensy Cooperrider, with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster, and Associate Director Hilda Loury. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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