Re: Biological = trivial?

Dwight W. Read (dread@ANTHRO.UCLA.EDU)
Thu, 8 Aug 1996 12:49:57 -0700

Krech writes:

>Once again it is Anita who provides insight by reminding me of
>Kroeber's definition of culture:
> >
> > I think that Krober's definition is still the best, "shared learned
> > behavior". The definition using the idea of human processes obstructing
> > nature doesn't work when one looks at stone tool usage. There is an
> > example of people using nature to produce needed goods.
> >
> > Anita Cohen-Williams

>The emphasis on "learning" is well suited to underline the interpersonal
>nature of culture as well as its relative independence of strictly
>deterministic natural law. It is also an expression of the intensi-
>fication that "cultURa" constitutes over the simple ties of "cultus"

The problem I see with Kroeber's statement is that it tries to define
something by its observable consequences and implications, rather than
identifying what lies behind those observable consequences and implications.
Also, while it may be a necessary consition that culture is "shared,
learned" but it does not follow automatically that this is also a sufficient
condition. For example, I demonstrate elsewhere that kinship terminologies
are an abstract construct whose structure as a system of symbols is a
consequence of its logic, hence (I would argue) an example par excellent of
"culture". At this level we are neither talking about behavior nor learning
(though learning and behavior arise from the construct).

Krech continues:

>To sum up, Kroeber's is an apt definition that contains the most important
>elements of its predecessors in the history of anthropological theory, and
>it is a scientific definition that can be tested. Perhaps it will also
>become a universally shared definition.

Sorry. Definitions are not tested. We can challenge their utility. If we
all agree that culture is "shared,learned behavior" then we agree on the
utility of the definition. If we do not all agree with the definition (and
I do not), it is because some of us have our own "intuitive" sense of what
constitutes culture and that definition does not match our "intuition." We
could phrase this as a hypothesis. HYPOTHESIS: All phenomena that we agree
belong to the category culture can be characterized as instances of shared,
learned behavior. Of course, this requires that we have some shared notion
of what constitutes instances of culture, without yet having a definition of
what IS "culture." The latter is not so problematic as it might seem, as it
is an approach, I suggest, that is used by all sciences when they are
dealing with phenomena that are not yet fully understood.

D. Read