Culture


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          Culture is a general way of human life. Culture replaces nothing, but it incorporates almost everything in a context of culturally defined meanings, values, and beliefs. It becomes a ubiquitous and inescapable framework for everything we perceive, think, or do. Like Geertz (1973:5), the human way of life is shaped by culture. We cannot understand humans without understanding culture, and we cannot understand human evolution without understanding the evolution of culture.

Culture is not all that exists in the mind and that informs and guides behavior. Such mental coding exists in any animal with a brain, even if the coding is very narrowly determined genetically. Thus hunger, thirst, fear, anger, sexual desire, etc. also help to determine human behavior without being culture. There is a difference one that seems to have escaped the notice of most investigators between human culture and anything we may call culture in other species. This is so in spite of many continuities between humans and other primates.

The great apes, at least, seem to have most of the cognitive abilities that make human culture possible. Human behavior and ape behavior, like that of all mammals, is guided in part by ideas, concepts, beliefs, etc. that are learned in a social context from other individuals of the same species. Among humans, however, some of these are not just learned socially but are also created socially, through the interactions of multiple individuals.

                Primatologists often define culture as socially learned behavior or socially transmitted traditions (Alvard 2003; Boesch et al.Among humans, however, there is something quite different that merits the name “culture.” This phenomenon is created not by individuals but through interactions among multiple individuals. For example, language (a major part of culture) is the product of many speakers interacting over many generations.

Kinship systems are not memes inventions that each individual is free to accept or reject. As conceptual frameworks, they are created only by multiple individuals through their interactions with one another. As a result, culture cannot be understood at the level of the individual alone. Knowing the motivations and mental constructs of the individuals involved may be necessary to understand cultural creations or cultural changes, but it is not sufficient. It is also necessary to analyze the interactions of those involved.

                A second important aspect of human culture as it is found among living humans is that its socially created codes provide motivation for behavior. This is not inherent in the nature of socially created coding. Imagine, for example, a population of early humans with simple language (socially created codes for communication) and simple, agreed upon procedures for cooperative hunts.

In this imaginary group, socially created codes would inform and guide the behaviors of the individuals involved, but it would not motivate them. Individuals would hunt cooperatively for the same reasons that other species cooperate: because each individual decided independently that doing so was in his or her own best interest.

Humans is that its socially created codes provide motivation for behavior. This is not inherent in the nature of socially created coding. Imagine, for example, a population of early humans with simple language and simple, agreed upon procedures for cooperative hunts. In this imaginary group, socially created codes would inform and guide the behaviors of the individuals involved, but it would not motivate them. Individuals would hunt cooperatively for the same reasons that other species cooperate: because each individual decided independently that doing so was in his or her own best interest.

                The third important characteristic of human culture as we know it today is that it provides a ubiquitous intellectual framework for almost everything we as humans perceive, believe, feel, think, or do. The socially created codes of culture do not replace the older genetically determined or learned codes possessed by other species. We too feel hunger and thirst, we too learn things as individuals outside a social context, and we too learn things by observing the behavior of others, things that we may decide to imitate depending on our individual motivations.