Re: "Culture and Biology"

Dwight W. Read (dread@ANTHRO.UCLA.EDU)
Sat, 20 Jul 1996 14:32:35 -0700

Kephart replies:

> 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."

At this point I thought I understood Kephart's position: all behavior can be
explained by reference to biology and culture should be subsumed within
biology as a particlar instance of biological phenomenon. I don't agree
with that position--I believe my work on kinship terminology structures
shows the problem quite well with this absolutist, biological reductionism.

However, Kephart then goes on to say:

>Yes ... I agree that when we get what makes culture possible we have a
>something that needs things other than genetics to explain fully.

So now we have the suggestion that it may be biology, but it cannot be
reduced to biology exemplified by viewing organisms as defined by their
genetics. Already, I sense a turning away from the earlier, unequivocal
statement. But Kephart does not stop here and continues:

>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 ...
>With language, there are, clearly, things which cannot be explained

Now my reading of the phrase: "there are, clearly, things which cannot be
explained biologically" leads me to see a contradiction with the earlier
statement: "all behaviors ARE biological phenomena."

Or, perhaps the resolution is to read Kephart as only saying (as I stated in
my post to which he raises objection) that we are biological organisms, so
in this sense all that we do is, in this sense, "biological" (again to
borrow from Yee's review)--we have cranes, we do not have skyhooks and
culture, in particular is not a skyhook. (The distinction being that
cranes, however high they reach, must have a foundation, whereas skyhooks
don't have to have a foundation.) Culture (whatever it is) ultimately has
its origins in biology (it didn't come from nowhere), hence in some sense it
is biological. I said in my post that this is trivially the case, where
"trivial" was meant in its mathematical sense of a "trivial logical
deduction"; i.e., once you accept that evolution is driven via natural
selection it is trivial (in a logical sense) to then deduce that culture is
ultimately biological (and biology is ultimately chemical, which is
ultimately ....). I did not mean that it is trivial from the viewpoint of
how anthropologists and others perceive of culture -- and where evolution
via natural selection is generally NOT taken as a premise relevant to
cultural phenomena.

So when Kephart goes on to say:

>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.

I need not see this as a contradiction of his first statement if I read
Kephart as only reinforcing the view that the origins of culture are,
ultimately, biological.

I would disagree with Kephart though, in the assertion that the parameters
within which we must operate are given biologically. Indeed, his statement
that "culture ... gives us a way of sidestepping genetic evolution" suggests
that he is not completely certain of his former statement. (Or, again, I
may be misreading Kephart and he is primarily saying, as I previously wrote,
that the "biological background" provids a framework against which cultural
processes operate; e.g., we can take geneaology as an abstraction of the
biological fact of genitors and genitrixes). Howver, what can be achieved
culturally (e.g., via kinship terminologies) is neither bounded by, nor
determined by "biological parameters"--we have groups that have no
difficulty in denying biological reality at the level of a constructed
cultural reality.)

D. Read