Thinking and Culture

This article is an excerpt from a chapter of a book I wrote during a sabbatical some ten years ago.  Coming across it recently, I thought it worth posting as it nicely summarizes my views of the nature/nurture debate.  It is not edited for this blog, so there are some references to other sections of the full manuscript; these can be safely ignored by the blog reader.

Although this is not the place to engage in an extensive discussion of the nature vs. nurture debate, a brief sketch of the problem and its implications for this section’s topic will be helpful.  Basically, the debate or controversy centers on the question of the extent to which human behavior, and most relevantly, human consciousness and thinking are pre-determined by our biology, especially the structure and capacities of our brains (which are, after, physical organs in the same way as our hearts or bones are) or determined by our experiences, especially our cultural experiences as mediated through education, social structures (including the family), religion and so forth.

The nature side of the equation holds that since human beings are bodily entities, as subject as any other creature to the laws of biology and the dictates of the genes, our behaviors, talents, intelligence, and thinking strategies are explainable by our biological nature.  For example, why are human beings aggressive creatures, fascinated by violence and prone to warfare?  Because we are the products of evolution, carnivores and hunters, creatures programmed to fight for what we need or want.  Why are males more physically violent than females?  Because of the influence of testosterone, which makes men bigger and more muscular and gives them more aggressive personalities.  The nature side attributes our tendency to congregate in groups related by blood (families, clans, etc.) to our biology; we are social not because we choose to be but because it is our nature to be.  Even our greatest treasures, our language, our thought, our very consciousness, are purely biological in origin.  Thus, while it may appear to ourselves that there is a great deal of plasticity and free will in our behaviors, in fact all our attributes are both determined and limited by our physical structure, by our genes, by instinct, etc.

There is considerable evidence, and even more argument, in support of this view:  Certainly the recent discoveries about the role of genes not only in the traits and diseases of what we commonly call “the body” but in the abilities and problems of what we commonly call “the mind” fall on the nature side of the debate.  (For the purist, remember, the mind is the brain, and the brain is simply a physical organ, not a mystic something essentially different from other organs—mind is matter, in this view.)  Genes determine one’s athletic ability and one’s likelihood of developing breast cancer; and likewise, genes determine one’s ability to acquire language and one’s tendency to schizophrenia.  The efflorescence of research and discoveries in neurophysiology bolster the position that biology is indeed our destiny.  The success of this view may be reflected in our increasing reliance on drug therapy for psychological problems rather than psychoanalysis, and certainly this has to some extent been a good thing:  it is a relief for parents to know that their child’s schizophrenia, or bipolar condition, or other mental illness, is not a result of bad parenting, of a cold and distant mother or some such factor.  It is even more of relief to know that taking the right medications can control the illness.  It is also good news that learning disabilities such as dyslexia are not the outcome of laziness or failure to try, but the manifestation of structural differences in the brain, those differences being determined by the child’s genes; and this knowledge, of course, leads to better techniques for compensating for these disabilities.  The evidence and arguments for the primacy of biology in determining human life, both at the individual and the social level, is quite strong.

The nurture side of the equation holds that human behavior and abilities are not pre-determined by biology but determined by cultural experience.  For example, human violence is not something programmed in our genetic inheritance or our hormones but something we learn.  Violent individuals are nurtured by a culture of violence, either within the family or within society as a whole.  Men are more physically violent and aggressive than women because societies choose to nurture boys to be violent, not because males are born to be violent.  And we create the families and societies we wish to have, and we can re-create them if we wish to change human “nature.”  Thus while for the naturist violent movies, for example, are a manifestation of the biologically determined human trait of violence, for the nurturist such movies are a means of inculcating violence in their viewers.  It is the nurturist who would campaign against violent movies, then, in order to lessen violence in individuals and society.  Likewise, the ways we think and our mode and level of consciousness is a product of our culture and of how we are raised and schooled.  Cultures therefore differ in their modes of thinking; Westerners are more linear and rational than other cultures because of the culture, not because of some biological difference between Europeans and other ethnic groups.

For the nurturist, biology may be our species’ history, but it is not wholly our destiny.  While it is true that getting from our prosimian ancestors to Homo sapiens was largely a matter of natural selection, there came a point at which biological evolution ceased to be the primary engine that drove human development.  We would be hard pressed to find any but the most negligible genetic or biological changes between the first Homo sapiens of 100,000 or so years ago and contemporary humans, but the differences in cultural development are enormous; we do, after all, now have computers and modern medicine and the philosophy of Kant, for example.  Even if we limit ourselves to the measure of evolutionary success, reproductive success of the species, we still must concede that, based on the rapid expansion of the population, especially in the last two hundred years or so, culture has conferred a far greater degree of adaptive success than random genetic mutation.   However, culture seems to be about a great deal more than mere survival; even though religions, for example, may compete with each other for dominance or converts, the existence of religion per se does not seem to be simply a survival mechanism.  The nurturist can argue, then, that applying the principles of Darwinian natural selection to an analysis of culture’s effects on today’s humans is at best a metaphor.

The evidence for the nurturist view is as voluminous as the evidence for the naturist view.  Dominant educational theories are based on the idea that nurture trumps nature (one would wonder, in extremity, why one would bother with education if nature trumped nurture).  Advice on child-rearing, on improving personal relations, on progress in international affairs, on making oneself into a better person, all depend on the underlying premise that human beings are not determined by their biology but are flexible, malleable “blank slates” on which just about anything can be written.  I recall as a high-school student many years ago watching an educational film about the acquisition of language and national identity.  In cartoon form, it traced the lives of two children, one Chinese, the other American (i.e., Caucasian), who were switched at birth, so that the Caucasian child was raised in China and the Chinese child was raised in the United States.  Not surprisingly, the Caucasian child spoke Chinese and behaved and thought as a Chinese, while the Chinese child spoke (very vernacular) English and behaved and thought as an American.  The point of the movie was that we are who are because of culture not because of biology.

In this view, mental illness is a product of bad experience, and psychotherapy, not drugs, are the required treatment (for some who hold this basic view, psychotropic drugs such as Prozac or Ritalin are methods of social control, not cures for biologically-based disorders).  Intelligence, as measure by I.Q. tests, is not genetic, but subject to cultural experience and enrichment, and is not fixed but plastic.  An extreme form of this view is encapsulated in the oft-repeated slogan that you can be anything you want to be, provided you put forth the required effort.  If you want to be a rock star, you can be; your musical talent is not determined by biology.

It would be interesting to investigate the extent to which these competing views of human nature are held simultaneously by most people today.  The educator who firmly believes that schooling can shape a child into a desired type at the same time recommends to a couple that their child take Ritalin to control his attention deficit disorder, so that he will be less unruly and fidgety in class and be able to focus on his homework.  Perhaps this reflects a growing synthesis of the nature/nurture debate into a recognition that both nature and nurture operate in the formation of the individual human being.  Or it may reflect the current state of confusion over which trumps what.

Nevertheless, it does seem obvious that unlike other animals, human beings are substantially determined by culture.  The young spider needs no lessons in web-making to make its first web, but the young human needs lessons in all the forms of typically human behaviors and skills.  This would seem to apply even in the area of language, for while the infant may be biologically primed to learn language, without learning he will never speak.  The nexus of nature and nurture may be illustrated by the problem of dyslexia.  Dyslexia is a very common condition that has a biological basis—it is in other words perfectly natural—but it is a disability only because of culture; in a culture based on literacy, anyone hampered by an inability to read and write fluently is by definition disabled, but in an oral culture, he would not be.  Because writing is an invention of culture, not a genetic trait, evolution has never “selected” for the ability to read and write (it still doesn’t, and probably never will), but culture of course to a considerable extent does reward those who have the ability (though only up to a point, as any young poet starving in her garret can attest).

At least at the level of beliefs, modes and habits of thought, lifestyles, and customs, people act according to the dictates of their culture.  Although there are always exceptions, individuals generally believe in the religion of their own culture; Western Europeans are predominantly Christian, not Buddhist or Hindu, and even if they do not explicitly believe in Christian doctrine, even if they are explicitly atheist, they nevertheless hold values that are “Judeo-Christian.”  The American belief in individualism, a belief which seems so obvious to us that we seldom pause to question it, is a culturally determined belief, and one that to members of other cultures seems odd, and even bizarre in some of its manifestations.  For other cultures, one’s responsibility as a member of the group is more important than one’s “responsibility to oneself.”  Indeed, the latter concept would be incomprehensible to many people in other cultures, as would our notion of romantic love as a basis for marriage, or our custom of adult children living separately, and often far, from their parents.

Culture provides the worldview, the paradigms, schemas, modes, warrants, values (the labels vary among authors and disciplines) of the individuals who are nurtured by and live in those cultures.  These modes (the term I will use as shorthand here) are inculcated from the very beginning of the individual’s life and thus are so deeply embedded in his or her mentality that most of them are not consciously considered; they are the rules and assumptions, as Kuhn puts it, which determine the way the individual thinks about things, and to a large extent the things which he thinks about.  Even the rebel rebels according to the terms set by the culture he supposedly is rebelling against.  Elsewhere in this book, I pointed out that in Western cultures, the atheist argues with the theist according to the terms established by traditional Western religious thinking, because he cannot conceive of the issue of whether or not God exists in any other terms.  What would be the atheist argument in a polytheistic culture?  If there had been any such thing as an atheist Aztec, how would the argument have been framed?  Note therefore that such arguments would be effective within the particular culture, which is the context in which the argument makes sense.  An interesting thought experiment might be to posit a culture which is atheistic.  How would the theistic rebel frame his or her arguments for deity in such a culture?  It is hard to imagine, given that in actual human history, theistic beliefs predate atheistic ones, and therefore set the terms for the debate.

What then is culture?  Numerous definitions have been offered, but we can distill them down to some basics.  Culture is everything we do that is not predetermined by instinct.  As animals, there is much that we must do; as humans, there is much more that we can do.  That we eat is biological; what we eat is a mix of biology (what we can digest, what is not poisonous, etc.) and culture (Muslims do not eat pork; Americans do not eat caterpillars and dogs).  A vegan has made a choice and is not rejecting meat on instinct.  Cooking is cultural; Julia Child takes cooking to heights totally unnecessary to reproductive success.  Perhaps most importantly for the subject of this book, animals do not have or need ideas; people do, the evidence of which is stacked in our libraries and bookstores and stored on our computers.  Hands make writing physically possible, but writing is an invention, not an inherited trait.  That we can think is determined by our brains, admittedly a physical organ shaped into its present form by evolution; what we think about, and how we go about thinking about what we think about, is determined by culture. Along with the physical properties of the world, biology constitutes the substrate on which all cultural activity is built, but biology is not equivalent to culture.  Human beings have morality, art, literature, religion, science, philosophy, and politics; animals do not.  For nurturists, it is a very great stretch indeed to hold that since Homo sapiens has these things, they must be biological or genetic in origin or explainable purely in evolutionary terms.

While evolution has had millions of years to do its work, culture has had only thousands.  Where it may take us in the future is no more foreseeable than the rose was “foreseeable” in the primordial photosynthetic pond scum.  Except for one factor:  culture, and its derivative and handmaiden rational thought, may very well be able to shape its own future.  Biological reductionists review the distant past (such as our ancestors’ experience on the African savannahs) in an attempt to explain contemporary human behavior.  They are in that way conservative, and it is therefore less of a surprise to find that, politically speaking, their views are more often (mis)appropriated by political conservatives (and even reactionaries) than by liberals.  One does not often, if ever, find liberals appealing to Darwinism to justify, say, affirmative action, but one does find racists citing evolution to justify racial hatreds and divisions, or the continued second-class status of women.  Such appeals stem in large part from biased and ignorant skimmings and misquotings of Darwinist texts, yet nevertheless it is instructive that such appeals can be made.  Our more recent past suggests that, while our evolutionary past can never be wholly escaped (nor is there any reason to wish that it could), biology need not exclusively determine our future.  Pablo Picasso, Virginia Woolf, Bill Gates, and Julia Child may not be necessary to our reproductive success, but they are essential to our humanity.

 

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