"Culture and Biology"

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Sat, 20 Jul 1996 16:33:26 -0400

In message <> "Dwight W.
Read" writes:

> Trivially, in some sense all behaviors have a biological origin. If I may
> refer to Yee's review, natural selection implies that we accept the analogy
> of cranes rather than of skyhooks for behaviors, with the foundation for the
> crane of behavior in this case being biological when we dig deep enough.

I have a real problem with "trivially" here. Also, I don't think behaviors
"have a biological origin" which requires "digging" to find. I think all human
behaviors ARE biological phenomena. Period. End of story. In my view,
anthropology, if it is anything unique, gains its uniqueness in part from the
rejection of this false dichotomy between "biology" and "culture."

> With the cultural level there is of,
> course, controversy over whether or not reductionism is valid; is the
> cultural merely an elaboration of the biological, or does the means by which
> the cultural becomes possible also introduce structuring processes that need
> to be understood in their own terms?

Again, I think the word "reductionism" is unfortunate (yes, I know "everybody"
uses it; does that make it accurate?). It reinforces the culture = sacred /
biology = profane dichotomy that we have inherited from a time when even
"scientists" didn't think humans were animals. Are we still hanging on to it, or
can we let it go?

Yes, Dwight, I agree that when we get what makes culture possible we have a
something that needs things other than genetics to explain fully. What makes
human culture possible is language. With language and culture, we lift
ourselves out of the limits of not only genetics but also both situational and
social learning, both of which chimps can do, and enter the realm of symbolic
learning, i.e. learning thru language. Some, such as Bickerton, suggest that
the symbolic aspect of culture, language, also allows us to add off-line
thinking to the on-line mental processing that animals without language appear
to be stuck with. And, best of all, we can do both at the same time!

With language, there are, clearly, things which cannot be explained
biologically. Why do Italian and Spanish allow for sentences with optionally
null subjects while other languages, like French and English, do not. Clearly,
there is nothing in the genome of Spanish speakers that codes for null subject.
The choice must be cultural. On the other hand, the fact that there are no
languages that allow for only null subject suggests that there are biologically
programmed limits to what is possible: Languages have to allow for subjects;
they may insist on them always (English) or they allow them to be missing at
times chosen by the speaker (Spanish).

For me this illustrates the relationship between biology and culture. Biology
gives us parameters within which we must operate; culture provides us with the
ability to choose where within those parameters our behaviors, beliefs, etc.
fall. Of course, culture via technology also gives us a way of sidestepping
genetic evolution. If we want to explore the sea floor, we don't have to wait
for mutations plus selection to give us gills; we build SCUBA gear, etc. and
plunge in.

I hate to keep hammering on these issues, but I think they are important. (Or
maybe I'm being cranky cause I just turned 51.)

Ron Kephart