Is Culture Behavior?

Sat, 7 Oct 1995 15:18:07 CST

There is a little-noted problem with defining culture as learned
behavior, regardless of whether one confines it to language-based
behavior or not. All of us but the most extreme mentalists, I think,
are not going to want to define "culture" in a way that excludes a
sentence such as "Automobiles are an important part of U.S. culture"
(or, if one prefers, "The automobile is an important part of U.S.
culture"). The problem is that automobiles are not learned behavior;
automobiles are automobiles. Suppose we try to save the day by saying
that automobiles are still part of our culture because we learn *about*
them. That won't work, though, because we learn about a great many
things, such as polyandry, genes, and the planet Jupiter, that do not
thereby become features of our culture. For this and other reasons, we
seem to need a concept different from"learned behavior"; and we already
have one. It is part of the legacy left by Edward B. Tylor himself:
"Culture is that complex whole . . . acquired by man as a member of
society" (I have tried in vain for a satisfactory nonsexist paraphrase.)
The needed concept, then, is "social acquisition." Material culture is
no less a social acquisition than are learned behaviors and ideas. This
is why my own definition begins as it does: Culture is the socially
acquired way of life of a social group, especially an entire society's
(1) interfaces with its physical and social environments (i.e., other
societies of the same species); (2) interactions between members; and
(3) symbolic interpretations of reality (if it has them). --Bob Graber