The biology of culture

23 November 2000, 808 words

One of the more depressing traits of human beings is their readiness to accept obvious falsehoods and, concomitantly, an almost equal readiness to reject provable truths. Evolutionary theory is an example of the latter; an example of the former is the widely-held belief that culture determines human nature.

In his book Human Universals, the anthropologist Donald Brown writes, "...the proposition that nature and culture are two distinct phenomenal realms assumes [that] a given trait, behaviour or institution is either cultural or it is natural, there is nothing in-between. In any form, this proposition ignores the obvious truth that, whatever the analytical validity of distinguishing nature from culture, the latter must come from the former. Folk beliefs notwithstanding, there is no alternative to this materialist tenet."

Most people's belief systems are adopted on the basis of heritability - i.e. whatever their parents and/or peers happen to believe. So what the average persons believes is determined, not by logic or proof, but by convenience and comfort. Evolution explains why this is so; culture does not. That is, we have evolved to believe whatever "truth" best ensures our genetic survival, not whatever is really true, since the real truth may sometimes not serve our interests. (Indeed, a good test of how objective you truly are is to consider whether you have any deep beliefs which you would prefer not to hold.)

This belief in the power of culture to shape human nature is particularly pernicious because it permeates all strata of society, from the academic to the political to the folk. Ordinary people believe that anyone who has a different skin colour, language, religion, even eating habits, is not only different, but fundamentally different from them. Politicians believe that people can be persuaded to believe anything, if told it often enough and loud enough.

The academic viewpoint, which has been dubbed the Standard Social Science Model (or SSSM), was articulated by American anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1935 in this way: "...human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions...The members of either or both sexes educated to approximate [any temperament]."

Mead's conclusions were based on her studies of the Samoan islanders, whose nonchalant sexual habits, she claimed, made them satisfied and their society crime-free; and on the Tshambuli, who had reversed sex roles, with the men wearing make-up and curls and, she said, having gentle natures as a result.

Fact is, later studies showed that the Samoans had sexual jealousy and rape like any other society, and the Tshambuli men were wife-beaters and treated homicide as a milestone in a young man's life which entitled him to wear the face-paint Mead thought was so feminine.

The ethnographic evidence overwhelmingly shows that a universal human nature does exist. Brown lists nine pages of traits common to all known societies, such as prestige, gossip, humorous insults, rhetoric, terms distinguishing male and female, sexual regulations, kinship terms, property, rules proscribing violence and rape, and many more.

This is hardly surprising. Human beings all have the same genomes. Genes build bodies and bodies build brains and brains build minds. Ergo, human beings are basically the same in the Amazon rainforests and the metropolitan cities. Differences in behaviour, beliefs and habits - i.e. culture - are mainly the result of ecology, geography and technology.

Yet, although both the logic and the empirical evidence show that human nature is not as malleable as the SSSM insists, academics and other intellectuals still write as though it is. There are several reasons for this obduracy, not least of which is social scientists promoting their own professional agenda.

The SSSM is the secular catechism of educated people, who are too intellectually advanced not to see the obvious contradictions of religion, but who are not emotionally advanced enough to reject the religious mindset. Culture assumes the aspect of a God, to whom one can pray in order to bring about fundamental changes in the reality of the world.

Concomitantly, the attraction of the SSSM also lies in its implication that one can wield power over others since, if you can control their culture, you can control their minds. This idea is what lies behind calls to legislate local music quotas, as well as the advertising blitz for the 2000 general election. Cultural determinism can only work if the human mind is a tabula rasa or, as some commentators believe, if the average person is at the mental and emotional level of a two-year-old.

But, even if the latter were true, it would provide no comfort to those who think people's attitudes can be shaped by cultural fascism: most children learn to say "No" before "Yes". That little fact alone helps prevent me despairing over the future of our species.

Copyright ©2000 Kevin Baldeosingh