Culture & symbols

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Sun, 28 Jul 1996 15:42:37 -0400

In message <19960728180425.AAA22703@LOCALNAME> Robert Snower writes:

> I think a case can be made for a general theme to be exhibited in evolution
> of behavior moving in the direct of, from instinct to learned behavior.
> >From automatic to the requirement of imitation. So what the lower form does
> automatically, the higher form needs to learn.

OK, but I have problems with "higher" and "lower", as well as with the notion of
evolution having directionality. Evolution is directionless, except in

> Is this culture? I think not. As long as the learning process is purely
> one of imitation, I would not call that pattern of behavior a cultural
> construct. It takes another step to make it culture.

Right. It takes language, which allows for transmission of knowledge about the
behavior in the absence of the performance of that behavior. A useful term for
behaviors acquired socially in the absence of language (such as chimp termite
fishing) "proto-culture."

> Can animals other than Homo sapiens create hypotheses? I don't think there
> is any doubt about it. The can do ritual, which is a hypothesis. As I
> previously mentioned, ritual combat for mating is a pretend fight--nobody
> gets really hurt. This is a cultural construct. And, as with Homo sapiens,
> this facility to culturally construct is put to the unique use of rejecting
> natural selection at the individual level in favor of altruism.

Unless the animals you refer to can sit around after the fight and talk about
it, I don't think what they are doing is culturally constructed. Besides, the
"ritualized" fighting for access to mates gives the winner access to the female,
while preserving (sometimes, but not always) the life of the loser. Perhaps
this type of fighting is a social animal's way of balancing the individual's
drive to reproduce with the need for there to be other adults around to maintain
the social group (I know I'm stretching here- but you didn't mention which
animals you had in mind.)

> On the other hand, with lower animals the "cultural construct" is itself an
> instinct. While in man it is a learning (mimetic) process, and prior to the
> learning, a creative one, higher than learning itself. Higher than learning
> as strict imitation. It is a higher and subsequent form of intellectual
> activity, as compared to imitation.

I still have problems with "higher" and "lower". Of course, again, it is
language which gives humans (not just "man") the possibility for our (sometimes)
exquisite creativity. With language, we can both displace (think/talk about
things which are absent in space and/or time) and lie (talk about things which
are inventions of our creativity, like Klingons).

Ron Kephart