Culture, Origins of

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Culture, Origins of

The dawn of culture may be the single most important development in human evolution. Sometimes people find their dependence on culture frustrating, but overall it is far more an enabler than a limitation. The human ability to think would be grossly constrained without language, however often people find themselves at a loss for words. Humans would not be human without culture to mediate their relationships with the environment, with other humans, with spirits and deities, and with abstract or imagined worlds like mathematics and the future.

Despite many suggestions, the definition E. B. Tylor used when introducing the term culture to anthropology is still popular: "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (p. 1). Lee Cronk and others have preferred not to include behavior, seeing culture as socially transmitted information or, as Clifford Geertz, puts it, patterns for behavior, not patterns of behavior.

Most traditional peoples have explanations of cultural origins, myths about the first fire or the gift of corn. Intensifying this quest for knowledge of cultural origins with new information about cultures all over the world, Enlightenment philosophers tried to imagine an original "state of nature." The seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes envisioned perpetual war, concluding that individuals would gladly give up unbounded liberty for the protection of government. The eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's vision was a celebration of freedom, equality, and the unfettered, uncorrupted individual. But whatever life can or should be it is clear that for humans the "natural" state is within society, enveloped by culture.

What is known about the prehistory of cultural origins is easily outlined. The following scenario is primarily derived from Richard Klein, with insights from Merlin Donald on the interrelation of culture and cognition. The data suggest brief periods of rapid transition, which is one reason many paleoanthropologists prefer the Eldredge-Gould punctuated-equilibrium model of evolution to neo-Darwinism.

The appearance of flaked stone tools 2.5 million years ago, the earliest known evidence for culture, coincides with the appearance of the first people with brains proportionally larger than apes. This is Donald's mimetic stage of cognitive development, representing emergence of the ability to mime, to imitate, and to re-enact events. The appearance of the first people with fully human body proportions about 1.7 million years ago was probably coincident with invention of the hand axe and the first hominid movement out of Africa.

A rapid increase in brain size about six hundred thousand years ago correlates with developments in lithic technology and the appearance of archaic Homo sapiens. This development corresponds to Donald's mythic stage, in which the increased pace of technological innovation is evidence of true human language. The timing of language, however, remains deeply contentious.

The "creative explosion" or "Big-Bang" of human cultural development occurred about forty-five to fifty thousand years ago with the appearance of the fully human creative use and manipulation of culture. This development corresponds to Donald's theoretic or modern culture stage, which was marked by the ability to enhance what is possible with the brain alone through externalization of memory.

When did human culture first appear?

One could legitimately place culture's origins at any of these stages. One could even place the origin of culture earlier, since stone tools may not be the first products of culturally based behavior; this would place the origins of culture well before the appearance of the human species. As recently as the 1970s it was a virtual truism that only humans had culture. But by 1973 Jane Goodall had recorded thirteen forms of tool use and eight social activities distinguishing the chimpanzees of Gombe in Tanzania from those at other study sites. Goodall proposed a cultural origin for these variations, and recent work has amply reinforced that view. Andrew Whiten and Christophe Boesch argue that chimpanzees display not only individual cultural traits but sets of distinctive behaviors that can be thought of as, for example, "Gombe culture" or "Teï culture."

Nonhuman culture or proto-culture is widespread among primates. Indeed, John Bonner provides many examples of animals, including birds, that are capable of behavioral transfer of information. But human culture is cumulative and makes use of symbolism. Human culture is also uniquely creative, flexible, diverse, and capable of both rapid change and remarkable stasis, even in changing environments. The "creative explosion" or "Big Bang" of human development likely represents the move from proto-culture to a truly human symbolic and cumulative culture. Human culture has become a newly emergent property of life that no longer needs to wait generations for genetic changes but can rapidly effect behavioral changes.

Sources, causes, and correlates of culture

What follows is a sampling of major contemporary theories of cultural origins, beginning with models of cultural evolution. Though not strictly theories of origins, they are essential for understanding how culture works and how cultural diversity came about.

For sociobiologists, natural selection is central, controlling even the details of human thought. Cultural origins and contemporary diversity are based on genetic differences in human populations. A recent variant, evolutionary psychology, accepts the criticism that genetic change cannot even remotely keep pace with cultural change, but retains the view that what people believe and do is based on genetic adaptations. Thus, how contemporary humans think is constrained by genes selected for the ways of life of earlier humans. Contemporary humans are basically hunter-gatherers ripped from the savanna, with mind ill suited and ill at ease with city lifea modern "expulsion from the garden" myth that attributes deep human dilemmas to gene-environment mismatch. With great clarity Holmes Rolston presents many important reasons why strong versions of these theories do not succeed. Early humans lived under varying conditions, not a single environment of adaptedness, and behaviors are not directly programmed by genes. Further, ideas can be transmitted to unrelated, even unknown, individuals.

Some scholars prefer to understand culture as radically separate from biology. This is the traditional anthropological perspective; Alfred Kroeber's influential "superorganic" notion views culture almost as having a life of its own, molding each individual far more than individuals mold culture. Memetics proposes a new kind of replicator, the meme an element of culture passed on by non-genetic means. Culture is a meme's way of replicating itself; beliefs and opinions are survival tricks memes use for self-perpetuation. Strict forms of these theories, however, would only work if cultures were composed of genuinely distinguishable units. In addition, the transmission processes (analogies with disease organisms abound) presume an unreasonable passivity in human communication.

Recognizing that human lives are influenced both by genes and by culturally transmitted ideas, gene-culture co-evolution or dual inheritance models ask how these influences relate. Importantly, it can be acknowledged that beliefs and behaviors are selected and transmitted by various means; it is only the overall mix that must be adaptive. William Durham demonstrates in, for example, his lactose tolerance case study that culture can be a causal force in human genetic evolution.

Sexual selection. Geoffrey Miller believes much of human culture (e.g., the arts, ritual, ideology) makes more sense as courtship display than as survival adaptation. Mate choice selects for indicators of fitness, which can explain interesting features of humanity. For example, because courtship displays need only indicate fitness, belief systems could develop that "work" even though they do not accurately depict the world.

Causal events, triggers, and mechanisms.

Another approach is to isolate one or a few variables as causes for the development of culture. Distinguishing human labor from animal behavior, the nineteenth-century social scientist Friedrich Engels proposed production as the primary factor, while Randall White and others suggest a trend toward increased group size. Social groups comprised of more people required more complicated social organization than do small, family-size groups, creating demands on communication. Michael Pfieffer has proposed an environmental change as the causal event. Rick Potts argues that the human innovation was to develop flexible cognitive abilities to face regular climate changes. Richard Klein argues that a single genetic mutation completed the modern brain, triggering the human capacity for culture. There is growing reason to believe genes are only indirectly connected to phenotype, yet there is also evidence that one change can make a dramatic difference. Michael Tomasello believes that a new form of social cognition, the ability to see other humans as intentional beings, triggered cognitive-cultural co-evolution.

Cooperation, altruism, and love. Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson argue in Unto Others (1998) that self-giving behaviors may benefit a group enough to compensate evolutionarily for any harm caused to individuals within the group. And Adrienne Zihlman points to the great importance of mother-infant interaction in the development of primate sociality. This emotional closeness and communication prepares individuals for culturally based cooperation and self-giving better than if society is, as alternative interpretations suggest, an endless power struggle. For Catherine Key and Leslie Aiello as well, cooperation defines humanity.

Blood relations. The developing human brain came with great costs especially to females whose reproductive strategy would have emphasized helping offspring reach maturity. The primate male strategy would have been to fertilize as many females as possible. Culture began, Chris Knight argues, when females obtained male energetic investment by confusing the males about the female's fertility state, thus tricking the males into sticking around. Menstruation is an obvious clue to pending fertility, and males, with only one thing on their minds, would turn away from nursing females to more fertile females just when most needed. Solution? Females could paint themselves red and all would appear equally fertile.

Relevance to science-religion dialogue

Whatever else one may conclude, Knight's proposal suggests that human agency and purpose are part of what needs to be explained. From this brief survey of theories of cultural origins, it is clear that human thought is probably not genetically determined in detail. And because cultural origins and transmission are quasi-independent of genetics, one can ask of an idea not just whether it spreads genes but how well it describes the world. Humans regularly create new ideas and pass them on nongenetically. One implication is that, to the extent values and virtues are culturally based, they do not need to be explained by natural selection on genes.

It would still be valuable to know whether altruism and true other-regarding love can arise by natural selection. John Polkinghorne and his colleagues have argued that love may be a deep feature of the universe itself, not just of human cultural beliefs. The study of human cultural origins may have something to contribute to this debate.

Understanding human cultural origins is also important for the science-religion dialogue because it raises important issues for understanding each of these elements of culture. For example, to the extent that human culture and behavior are only loosely tied to our genetic variation and to our evolutionary history, the religious and scientific quests could do more to put us in touch with a reality outside of our individual subjective selves than some existing models of human nature allow. As another example, religion and ethics are very likely human universals, originating early in human cultural evolution. If love is a significant feature of reality and to the extent that human culture evolved out of cooperation and self-giving as Zilman suggests, religion and ethics could be more central to and indicative of human culture than we usually allow. Their origins could, in turn, be important in cultural origins. Could it be that the origins of the human religious, spiritual and ethical sense was an essential piece in the puzzle of the origins of human culture and so of humanity itself?

See also Altruism; Anthropology; Art, Origins of; Evolutionary Psychology; Evolution, Biocultural; Memes; Paleoanthropology; Punctuated Equilibrium; Sociobiology


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