TANGENT: ON CULTURE
Every human society, and every group of any duration within society, has its culture -- or so orthodox anthropology would have us believe. Early on, in our first book, Biogenetic Structuralism , Gene d'Aquili and I tried to get rid of the term. Why? Because we young upstarts found the term to be too loaded with erroneous meaning to be redeemable. Of course we were naive. Anthropology isn't about to give up on a term that has been its bread and butter for four generations or more. So there the concept of stands, replete with all the dualistic baggage that annoyed us from the very beginning.
Consider Conrad Kottak's definition of "culture" in his textbook, Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity (fifth edition, p. 2): "Cultures are traditions and customs, transmitted through learning, that govern the beliefs and behavior of the people exposed to them. Children learn these traditions by growing up in a particular society." Raymond Scupin and Christopher DeCorse go so far as to claim humans alone have culture, and they make this unique quality the central concept of their text, Anthropology: A Global Perspective (p. 78): " Culture is something unique to humans and is the major focus of this book [their text]. It can be defined as the shared way of life of a group of people that incorporates their beliefs, values, and the world view."
So what's wrong with that? People are different in different societies. Even here in Canada, French Canadians are different than Anglo Canadians, and both are different than Lakota Canadians and Chinese Canadians. We revel in differences here in Canada where we define our national character in terms of "multiculturalism." What's wrong with this notion of culture? Just this: Hidden in such definitions are the often tacit assumptions that human beings have somehow transcended their animal natures -- indeed transcended nature itself. We are no longer animals, we're "culture bearers." Genetics no longer has an influence on what we do, what we know, what we feel and what we value. Only culture determines this for each and every one of us because we were enculturated -- we were raised in our native society and received its culture from our parents and other grownups. Culture defined in this way creates the false impression that we have been magically liberated from the forces of nature. Anyone who is even slightly aware of the state of the ecology of this planet should be able to see one glaring flaw in this view. Namely, we are never apart from, have never been apart from and can never be apart from nature.
This definition of culture is very common in anthropology, and is really a manifestation of pre-scientific Euroamerican mind-body dualism which is uncritically projected upon our subject matter via our theoretical filters. The mind-body dualism notion becomes the culture-nature dualism notion at the level of whole societies. In fact, it is quite rare for human societies to so completely separate themselves from nature in their worldviews. Most live in closer union with the world around them. But we are raised in a materialist culture, most of us in large cities where it is hard to find something we think of as "nature" without going to a part or "out in the country."
Take a look at those definitions of culture again. They emphasize two primary ingredients that one will find in virtually every textbook definition of the term. Those ingredients are the qualities of learning and social sharing . In fact, A.L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckholn published a study in 1963 entitled Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions in which they found these same two ingredients in almost all definitions anthropologists have constructed. I get so frustrated with this uncritical parroting of received doctrine that in courses I often give a counter definition of "culture:" a style in human bondage . After all, if we have the potential to know in a variety of ways, and are conditioned to narrow that range of knowing, what else would that be but captivity of the mind?
In any event, what is usually left unsaid is the assumption that learning has nothing to do with biology. We humans are able to learn things in ways that other animals cannot. Yet the bald fact of the matter is that we learn with our bodies, and especially with our nervous systems. We can learn nothing that our brains and bodies are not prepared to learn, and we learn nothing that does not involve a change in the organization of cells and networks of cells mediating our cognized environment. You see, the underlying and quite naive assumption on the part of a lot of anthropologists is that we have a brain that is a kind of "blank slate" upon which society inscribes its culture. Our brain is infinitely plastic and can be moulded into whatever "learned" custom or tradition the society decides to perpetuate. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The psychologist Henry A. Murray said it best: In some ways all human beings are alike, in some ways some human beings are alike, and in some ways no human beings are alike. Anthropologists have made it their stock-in-trade to describe and think about the "ways some human beings are alike" to the exclusion of the non-trivial ways all humans are alike (trivial ways are like everybody has one head and two legs), and moreover how all big brained mammals are alike (see Earl Count's book, Being and Becoming Human ). And of course psychologists have specialized in the "ways no human beings are alike."
As you can see by now as you follow this tutorial, biogenetic structuralism presents a perspective in which the three ways (all, some and none) are integrated within a single perspective. We have refused as a matter of discipline to leave the body and its brain behind in our rush to explain the superficial, though perhaps exotic ways human societies learn to do things. We rather see "culture" in terms of the relative flexibility of neural systems to reorganize to meet environmental novelty, while recognizing that there are distinct "biological" limits to such flexibility that have to do with the properties of physiological systems.
You remember what I said in Day Two about Gould's concept of exaptation ? This is precisely what I am referring to. The brain is the consummate exaptational organ. It exhibits exceptional flexibility of re-organization as compared with, say, the physiology of the hand. The hand is marvellously flexible too. It can learn to snap fingers, flip coins, grab a hammer, pick a nose. But there are severe limits to what the hand can learn to do (yes, I am aware the "hand" includes the neuromotor systems of the brain). So too with the cortex of the brain. It can re-organize its structures to do marvellous things, but it cannot learn to do anything it cannot re-organize its structures to do. Take my meaning? There is no "culture" that does not involve, either directly or indirectly the conditioning of neural structures. Even artifacts like tools and pots and paintings and TV are modifications of the physical environment produced by brains with their clever hands. Even "material culture" involves brains. When we dig up the material remains of past "cultures" we are looking at the artifacts of human knowledge, and there is no knowledge, past, present or future, without the structures of the brain.
The Culture of Animals
One of the most debilitating things about the "culturological" view of culture, divorced as it is from neurobiology and nature, is the presumption that human beings are fundamentally different than animals. Humans are "culture-bearers" while animals are not. Because culturologists remove humanity from nature, it becomes methodologically impossible to look for the anlagen (= developmental precursor forms or structures) to human adaptational patterns. The quest for and discovery of homologies (= same structures) and evolutionary anlagen among the planets species are major methods for determining the processes operating in evolution. For example, humans and chimpanzees recognize their faces in a mirror, but monkeys do not. What can the study of facial recognition and other such patterns of similarity tell us about the evolution of consciousness? Yet anthropology pays scarce attention to such evidence because of the (empirically unfounded) perception of a vast gulf between cultural humanity and non-cultural animals.
Actually, I tend to share Ernest Becker's attitude about all this. In his The Denial of Death , Becker said that humans have to distance themselves from nature in one way or another in order to cope with the implications of their "creatureliness." Claiming that humans have culture while animals don't is much the same stubborn attitude as the more ancient claim that humans have souls and animals don't. If we are just animals, and seeing that we all die, then what's the point? When our bodies die then maybe our consciousness dies with it. Arghhhh! A profound existential dissonance. I feel that my life is somehow more important than a garden slug's. It is more important because I am one of God's chosen. Didn't God give me and my kind dominion over the Earth and all the creatures? It says so in right there in the Bible, doesn't it (Genesis 1:28)?
Well, we have recently killed off God, and that left us with a nasty dilemma. If we are not God's chosen, then what are we then? Mere animals? When we die are we just... well, dead? No, by cracky! We're culture bearers. We are still different than the animals. We have language and we have traditions and we have technologies. We are decidedly different than the animals, and are thus distinct enough to be the subject of our own science -- anthropology! Chimpanzees are not culture-bearers, so there is no reason to form a chimpology, much less a gardenslugology. Anthropology can now purvey a teaching that protects us from the implications of our creatureliness. Even if our bodies do die, what we are in any important sense is passed on via enculturation!
Of course there is a considerable body of evidence that animals do exhibit consciousness and rudimentary culture (see J.T. Bonner's 1980 book, The Evolution of Culture in Animals , Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press on this issue). Society and social action have developed time and again in the course of evolution in all sort of phyla. Cooperation and synergy are quite common in the adaptive patterns of critters. And certainly by the time one is dealing with big brained social animals, socially shared and learned patterns of cognition and social action are not uncommon. But in all cases the learning involves modification of pre-existing physiological structures, including especially neuroendocrine systems. Among other things, society and social learning allows the synergistic advantages of different personalities and temperaments to emerge.
Language is the sticking point for many anthropologists. Some folks just cannot conceive of any learning worthy of the name that does not involve language. If learning depends on language, and learning is definitive of culture, then only humans have culture. But knowledge does not require learning. Nor does consciousness. By that argument, babies are both unconscious and incapable of learning anything, and this is empirically false.
Should we get rid of the concept of culture? Probably, but it will never happen. The best we can hope for is that an integrative theory of human evolution comes to the fore that incorporates the concept within a more empirically satisfying context. If this happens, then the concept will shift in meaning to refer to the developmental flexibility of neural structures and their range of functions. This is certainly how biogenetic structuralists have used the term since the beginning of our project. "Culture" from our point of view simply refers to the socially conditioned development of neurognosis.
If you would like to carry on this tangent and explore the allied concepts of belief and evidence , then you may do so. Or you may want to return to our Day Six discussion of the cycle of meaning . But perhaps you have had enough for now and wish to return to the index where you can note where you wish to return next time.