Definition of Culture

Jesse S. Cook III (jcook@AWOD.COM)
Thu, 15 Aug 1996 08:37:15 -0400

On 13 August 1996, John R. Cole wrote:

"Point being: textbook definitions have long been *desperate* to show that
we humans are unique...the only ones which do X. This exceptionalism and
species-centrism is...a leftover from the religious belief that humans are
'in the image of God', unlike any other creature...I'm simply arguing that
humans have tended to exaggerate their uniqueness for millennia and that
this has continued during much of the history of anthropology." (Emphasis

I got the point when, on 12 August 1996, he wrote:

"...the debate about 'animal culture' is no debate unless one is a 'human
exceptionalist' *anxious* about proving we're 'not just animals.'"
(Emphasis added.)

But, as the emphasized words show, he is exaggerating in the opposite
direction. The only ones I can think of who might be "anxious" or
"desperate" to do as he says would be fundamentalists, whether in the
Jewish, Christian, or Islamic traditions. And such "believers" generally do
not go in for anthropology--for obvious reasons.

I think he, among others, is fighting a straw man. And, in so doing, he is
distorting reality in the opposite direction. I will back up this statement
with my following comments.

He says that the phrase "imposition of arbitrary forms on the environment"
is "jargon for 'ability to shape or modify external things via learned or
innovative intentional and *teachable* techniques.'" (Emphasis added.)

To the best of my knowledge and belief, no nonhuman animal *teaches* any
other animal. Sure, some animals are "teachable" but only by humans. Other
animals learn by imitation.

Similarly, he says: "...pigeons learn...*ritualized* behaviors..." and "Many
other animals have...learned...*rituals*..." (Emphasis added.)

There is a difference between teaching-like and ritual-like behavior and
teaching and ritual. The latter are uniquely (sorry) human. The former are
anthropomorphisms. We are always in danger of going wrong when "we take a
concept originally conceived to describe human behavior and, by anology,
apply it to the behavior of other creatures", as I said on this list 25 July
1996 with regard to altruistic-like behavior and altruism. I also said:
"Anthropomorphism almost inevitably follows, leading to false conclusions."

As an example, he says: "'Man (sic) the Toolmaker' was the definition of
humans when I was a student, but...other animals were found to make and use
tools; similar simplistic distinctions were proposed as substitutes--'the
hunter' (oops--chimps do a lot of it!)..."

Chimpanzees do not "do a lot of it". They do very little hunting, and when
they do, it is usually opportunistic. They seldom, if ever, intentionally
set out to hunt as humans do.

See how easy it is to distort reality once you start thinking
anthopomorphically. And you fall into that trap while accusing others of
distorting reality!

As an aside, when I was a student, I had a professor of physical
anthropology that had the opposite tendency to the one John is fighting. He
would constantly say "humans are just (or only) animals". It used to drive
me wild; but, being a student, I didn't know enough to argue the point.
(His being a professor didn't awe me but my lack of knowledge did.)

To sum up, I'd like to plead for balance. Sure, humans are animals--but
animals with a difference. Let's get on with studying that difference.
That's what anthropology is all about, I think.

Also, to know what is different about the human animal, we have to look to
the data of ethology, et al. But we need to look at that data with a
critical eye to detect and eschew any anthropomorphism we might find there.

Jesse S. Cook III E-Mail:
Post Office Box 40984 or
Charleston, SC 29485 USA

"Our attitude toward others is not determined by who *they* are;
it is determined by who *we* are."