Re: Definitions of culture

John Cole. (jrc@TEI.UMASS.EDU)
Tue, 13 Aug 1996 18:15:16 -0400

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[some of my comments below--JRC]

Subject: Re: Definitions of culture

But yes, consult Kluckhohn and Kroeber--and use a critical eye to be sure not
to rule important aspects of culture out of bounds or non-existant.

One further note: the debate about "animal culture" is no debate unless one is
a "human exceptionalist" anxious about proving we're "not just animals."
Various animals have degrees of culture, from tool-making to imposition of
arbitrary forms on the environment to shared learned behavior to emotions to
ritual.....etc. Humans do a lot of these things MOREso, but the evolutionary
continuity should be obvious--and to me, at least, even comforting in that it
suggests that we have very great plasticity and yet extended "kinship" with
other species!

--John R. Cole

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!/Please give examples of "imposition of arbitrary forms on the environment".
And what is included in the "etc."?

2/If "animals have degrees of culture", you will have to change the definition
found in most textbooks and every dictionary. Furthermore, you'll have to
change Cultural Anthropology to Cultural Ethology.

Jesse S. Cook III

JRC replies 13 Aug:
1/ Jargon for "ability to shape or modify external things via learned
or innovative intentional and teachable techniques." As opposed to according
to "instinct" or hard-wired behavior. Examples--chimps make tools in crude
"styles" not entirely inevitably caused by the raw material's limitations, or
pigeons lrarn to practice ritualized behaviors in order to get food.... My
"etc." was simply a lazy way to avoid listing all of the possible detailed
behaviours critters can learn, invent, teach each other, etc. (Sorry!!) One
nifty example might be incipient ethical behaviour by chimps which learn and
demonstrate a simple understanding of how to attribute motives and causes of
events to others's actions (described in a U Chicago bk chapter by Poverini
and Godfrey ca. 3 yrs ago arising out of a simposio on evolutionary ethics).

2/ "Man (sic) the Toolmaker" was the definition of humans when I was a
student, but more and more 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!), "the communicator" (hmm--other critters
certainly communicate, altho they don't have full-blown languages)...and so
forth. I always liked Mark Twain's definition "Man is the only animal that
blushes--or NEEDS to," but..... Point being: textbook definitions have long
been desperate to show that we humans are unique, special, the only ones which
do X. This exceptionalism and species-centrism is, to an extent, I think, a
leftover from the religious belief that humans are "in the image of God,"
unlike any other creature. It leads to textbook glossary definitions and
snappy titles which do not work quite as well as soon as phenomena are
examined closely. Note that I am NOT saying that humans are "only" hardwired,
sociobiological (as popularly perceived) actors with no independence. I'm
simply arguing that humans have tended to exaggerate their own uniqueness for
millennia and that this has continued during much of the history of
anthropology. Many other animals have shared, learned behaviors and
rituals--they are not the SAME, but neither are they simply in that old
catch-all, "instinctive," unlike noble Homo.

Sorry to ramble on! My original point was that we should not fall for
monocausal definitions of humans and culture. We have to consider, you'll
pardon the terms, both the etics and the emics! A lot of cultural anthro has
tried to denigrate the etic details, the human biology, the behavior, the
artifacts....looking only (or largely) at "ideas" or even "ideals"---and in
the process there has also been an oversimplification of OTHER animals, as
well. The tapestry is richer and more interesting when we realize as Darwin
did there is majesty and clarity afforded by "this view of life, all melted

Sleepy yet?!

--John R. Cole