Principles Of Biocultural Anthropology
B. What is biocultural anthropology?
C. Principles of Biocultural Anthropology
1. Biocultural anthropology is a science.
2. We derive much of our biological potential from our ancestors.
3. Human beings live in culture as well as nature.
4. Culture Extends Our Capacity To Overcome NatureÕs Challenges.
5. Culture Now Challenges Our Capacity To Adapt To Culture.
Principles of Biocultural Anthropology
Originally I set out to write a textbook in biocultural anthropology. Eventually I gave up on that idea. There were several reasons for letting it go but the most important came when I finally admitted to myself that I am out of touch with contemporary anthropology. My notions about the field are old fashioned. Not the stuff from which successful textbooks come. In my view the best of anthropology has become obsolete and discarded as out of date. I donÕt understand nor do I know much about contemporary anthropology, but that doesnÕt keep me from regarding it as I solipsistic and faddish. Of course old guys like me have been saying that forever about the stuff that came after them.
So instead of a textbook I decided to say what I want to say in essay form and put it on the web. I know that putting something on the web is not quite the same as burying it in the backyard, but it comes close. ThatÕs fine with me. At this stage I am not motivated to pad my resume, and I have no wish to deal with the conventions, constraints and criticisms that go along with publishing a textbook. What I am doing here is trying to relate in writing some of the substance of a course I taught for a few years before I retired. The course had a life-changing effect on many students Š or so they told me and I believed them -- which encouraged me to try to make its substance more available.
I began the course by putting the students on notice that they would probably not learn anything new, nothing, that is, that they did not already know. If things worked out as I hoped the best they could expect from the course would be to catch a glimpse of what it is like to see themselves from a from different perspective. It was, in other words, an anthropology course that was as much about them as it was about others. I repeat the caveat here: there is no new information in what follows. The only thing I would say on behalf of what follows is that gaining a different perspective may be at least as valuable as learning something new. Indeed taking a different view of what we already know will change our life.
B. What is biocultural anthropology?
If sociobiology (or its derivative "evolutionary psychology") looks for the source of human behavior from the bottom up, then biocultural anthropology looks at it from the top down. Instead of looking for the underlying biological roots of human behavior, biocultural anthropology attempts to understand how culture affects our biological capacities and limitations. Culture has grown to become a prominent aspect of our environment over the past few thousands of years, and it continues to grow at an accelerating rate. Yet over the same period humankind has evolved biologically very little if at all. Biocultural anthropology explores how this increasingly complex and diversified cultural environment challenges human biology. This top down approach is old fashioned in the sense that anthropology began with a biocultural outlook assuming that the notion of culture stood firmly as its conceptual foundation. The expectation was that the concept of culture would serve as the common ground which would fuse the subspecialties of biological with cultural anthropology into an overarching coherent approach to the study of humankind. But in fact both subfields went their separate ways, if not from the start then from very early on.
Recently however some anthropologists have become interested in the effects of culture -- especially the effects of technologically advanced modern culture -- on the built-in biological capacities and limitations of humankind. They have stimulated an resurgence of interest in some questions that have been around for a long time. How, for example, has the extraordinary growth in the content of the cultural environment over the past few thousand years affected the course of human biological evolution? What might be reasonably inferred about our species future from such rampaging cultural growth? What does an organism hardwired to adjust to a cultural environment that elevates within group competition over cooperation? How does the widespread acceptance of a belief in the primacy of adult gratification affect the biological well being of children? What biological effects do non-governmental service organizations have when they seek to reduce the rate population growth, to ameliorate malnutrition, to increase life expectancy, or to reduce infant deaths? In what, if any, ways are human beings affected by the persistence of beliefs and institutions formed out of cultural conditions that passed out of existence long ago? Has the accelerating rate of growth in the contents of the cultural environment become more formidable than the natural environment as a challenge to the continued survival of humankind? How do cultural processes that degrade the natural environment affect human biological potential? How do the cultural processes which concentrate wealth in the hands of a few affect the biological capacities of the many?
These represent a small sample of the questions that biocultural anthropology could ask. Each of these, for example, could be partitioned further into questions concerning the effects of culture upon biologically defined subcategories such as sex, race and age differences. There seems to be plenty of work to be done
The questions of importance to biocultural anthropology strike at the heart of some of the most pressing issues that confront our species, us and every one else, right here and right now. What follows here is a proposal which seeks to lay a foundation upon which the work could proceed.
C. Principles of Biocultural Anthropology
1. Biocultural anthropology is a science.
When it comes to doing science anthropologists canÕt hold a candle to physicists and chemists. Any number of reasons make this understandable but they all come down to one basic difference and that is the subject matter. One simply cannot, nor should one be able to, manipulate people in the way one can manipulate elements and compounds.
So what then does it mean to claim that biocultural anthropology is a science? Only this: in attempting to understand the effect of culture on human biology, biocultural anthropology limits its search to the things and events of the material world. What this means is that like physics and chemistry the human sciences seek to explain our experience of the material world in its own terms. In this fundamental respect, biocultural anthropology differs not at all from physics and chemistry.
A generation or so ago it would not have been unnecessary to claim that anthropology is a science, at least not among anthropologists who took the principle as axiomatic. Nonetheless it should also be noted that even then taking a scientific approach was not the only path followed by anthropologists. Humanistic and scientific approaches, especially among cultural anthropologists, existed side by side and both were widely accepted as complementary and equally valid ways to improve our understanding of humankind.
Today however the scientific approach has acquired a smell, an especially obnoxious odor to some cultural anthropologists. The science of anthropology is now regarded in some quarters as yet another instance of the Western world imposing its repressive world view on everyone else. Reality itself. they can easily show with words, is but a human construct, a fabrication made out of a combination of fallible sense experience, the impossibility of observing human behavior without affecting it, and reported using out to words which have no fixed meanings.
They may be right but proceeding from their assumptions how can we ever know? One large point in favor of going ahead with a science of anthropology comes from a review of the contribution the field has made as a science to undermining the ethnocentric beliefs so widespread among our Western not-so-distant ancestors. The work of anthropologists provided a foundation for rejecting the widespread belief that we human beings are at the center of the universe, the apple of the Creators eye, the reason why all else was made. The science of anthropology also helped to erode away the belief that women are the weaker sex, that Blacks are inferior to Whites, that some cultures are better than others. Or at the very least such views are not nearly as widespread in the Western world today as they were just a few generations ago and the work of anthropologists, the humanistic as well as the scientific, helped bring about the change. Thus the evidence of history makes a strong case for tolerance as an efficacious strategy for continuing to study of anthropology as a scientific effort while at the same time not insisting that the way of science is not the only way. I am aware however that no matter how strong the case may be it is not likely to change anyone's mind on the subject. Indeed cultural mechanisms that serve to maintain stability in culture are often too strong to enable one to change ones mind on such an issue. That, of course, includes me.
In any event, biocultural anthropology proceeds from the materialistic assumption that there is a real world out there and that our experience can be made more intelligible by locating cause and effect linkages between the things and events of that real world. Though we may think of science in a stereotypical way as an activity that can only take place under the precisely controlled conditions of the laboratory, the basic character of science involves nothing more than an effort to understand the world in its own terms. As we proceed however it is also probably a good idea to keep in mind that the approach of science has inherent limitations; is based on assumptions that must be accepted on faith, leads often to error, generates results both beneficial and devastating to humankind, and science is not the only way available to help us improve our understanding of our experience. In these respects science and religion share the same ground. Science is but one way of proceeding. Because anthropologists today stand divided on whether anthropology is or can become a science, it is probably prudent if not necessary to be clear from the start that science is the platform upon which biocultural anthropology begins and proceeds.
2, We derive much of our biological potential from our ancestors.
Asserting that human beings are animals, mammals and primates hardly counts as breaking news. Yet it serves as an important reminder of our places us in the world of nature. More important as a reason for stating this as a fundamental principle is that it serves to bring to mind that our biological capacities and limitations derive in large part from the evolutionary heritage we share in common with the mammals and primates. Because we have such a long tradition of believing ourselves to be the product of a special act of creation -- and thus by implication as standing apart from everything else in nature -- it is worth our while, and essential to biocultural anthropology, to keep in the forefront of our thinking an appreciation for the sort of biological being we are.
As mentioned earlier biocultural anthropology focuses on the effects of culture upon our biological capacities and limitations. We derive these from the ancestry we share with animals, mammals, and primates. They are discussed in some detail in another online essay titled "Living Out Of Our Biology" also accessible by way of my home page.
3. Human beings live in culture as well as nature.
Yet no listing of our distinctive biological traits -- no matter how exhaustive -- can ever tell the whole story of how we are different. When compared to any other life form we lead a decidedly different way of life. Unless they are supremely clever at being able to keep us from knowing about such things, other forms of life, for example, never have to concern themselves, as we do, with distinguishing water from holy water, keeping holy the Sabbath, favoring pro-life or pro-choice, hating Protestants, Catholics, Israelis, or Palestinians, distinguishing Tuesday from Wednesday or Colorado from Wyoming, believing in a life after death, creating stem cell lines, employing weapons of mass destruction, and on and on and on.
This brings us to the subject of culture. Obviously biocultural anthropology can proceed only with a useful notion of culture. There are many definitions of culture from which to choose, so many in fact that I am disinclined to choose one or offer yet another. Instead I will describe what I consider a useful way of thinking about culture. My hope is that a description alone will be sufficient to move us along in understanding the role culture plays in its interactions with human biology. Specifically I describe culture as a phenomenon that consists of two interacting and interdependent components, one external to the human animal, the other internal.
The external aspect of culture exists out there in the world in the form of such things as objects, institutions, organizations, processes, and behavior. Tools, weapons, works of art, the Catholic church, Masons, monetary systems, etc. illustrate the sorts of things that make up the external component of culture. All together they constitute an environment within which we reside, an "out there" environment decidedly different from what we usually think of nature - streams, mountains, animals, atmospheric pressure, etc. While different from nature this external cultural environment is nevertheless analogous in some ways to the natural environment; both culture and nature are constantly changing, both provide resources to sustain life, both favor the survival of certain variants of humankind, and both offer challenges to the continuing survival of humankind.
Culture also consists of phenomena that exist inside us such as ideas, concepts, values, goals, images, memories, expectations, desires, attitudes, beliefs, etc. We begin to accumulate this internal cultural inventory early in life and, as we do, it becomes the substance of our inner mental life, the personal mindset we bring to every encounter we have with experience. Our internal culture includes what we think, who we think we are, the mental kitbag of past experience that accompanies us wherever we go. We can never escape the influence of experience. Indeed why would we ever want to do so? Our mindset is our the product of our past experience and is always with us. We like to think of ourselves as free and open to new ideas, and we like to believe we can evaluate new experience with objectivity (two of the many beliefs in our internal culture). But the culture we internalize from our interactions with the world around us becomes the ever present constraint which stands as the foundation on which we judge, incorporate, interpret, internalize and act upon the present. Though its contents change with the tide of experience, generally speaking the more we accumulate the more resistant we become to change.
So how did culture come into being? How did the human animal become so different from other animals? Just as there have been many definitions of culture, many persons have offered answers to this question. Answers have been proposed by all kinds of persons from crackpots and zealots to some of our most respected thinkers , so it would be wildly presumptuous - foolhardy -- of me to propose another here. As in the case of the concept of culture, the best I can offer here is some talk about the issue and hope that the talk alone helps sort out some of the difficulties that stand in the way of understanding the source of culture.
The question then is where does culture come from? Words appear to lie at or near the source of both the internal and external components of culture. (Talking about words can become confusing rather quickly because the only way to talk about words is with words.)
The effect of coining a new word is to create meaning and creating meaning is creating an item of culture. Nouns illustrate the point better than other parts of speech. I will use a frivolous example to illustrate how coining new words brings culture into existence. The example is this: I want to talk about a particular group of people for which a name does not exist, so I make up a word to give it a name. Say I happen to want to talk about women who are left-handed and who earn their living playing the clarinet. So far as I know this category has never been differentiated, i.e. has never been named before. Left handed women who earn their living playing clarinet become differentiated as a separate category of people when they are given a name. I will call any person included in this category a sinisette, and low and behold in giving the category a name I have differentiated a formerly undifferentiated aspect of experience which perforce becomes, or at any rate could become, a unit of culture.
Or stated in a different way: the things of culture are expressions of our vocabulary.
But of course words are not the only means by which we bring items of culture into being. Flags, signs, gestures, screams, inflections all convey meaning and thus all serve to differentiate experience and create culture in the same way words do. The meaning of such symbols can be so powerful as to evoke the most profound emotions and reactions. Our vocabulary thus extends well beyond the confines of even the most complete dictionary.
In the beginning was the word and with words we can talk and think about experience. Once we begin to talk about sinesettes we begin to form judgments, opinions, ideas, etc. about them. The internal and external components of culture thus interact continuously. With words we have a means to pass along our thoughts to others and what we pass along may continue or pass away. Sinesettes as an item of culture will surely have a very short life illustrating how natural selection operates on cultural things. Some items promote culture's growth and these persist and proliferate.
The line between internal and external culture is often difficult to see in actual practice. The medicine we take, the racism we feel, the family of which we are a part for example, exist both within us and external to us. The distinction is useful mainly because it brings home to us the realization of how our lives are constantly imbued with, and constantly enmeshed by, culture. Items of culture that promote its growth and continuation may or may not serve the survival needs of humankind.
4. Culture Extends Our Capacity To Adapt To NatureÕs Challenges.
With even this minimal notion of culture we have a foundation for beginning to explore the role it plays in our lives and the role it played in the lives of our ancestors. I make the distinction between ourselves and our ancestors because there have been two decidedly different phases in the relationship culture, our ancestors, and recent humankind. The first -- the cultural phase Š began roughly 2 million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago; the second Š the hypercultural stage Š begins with the dawn of agriculture and continues into the present.
The oldest archaeological evidence of culture occurs with the first appearance of deliberately fabricated stone tolls approximately 2.5 million years ago. The emergence of culture would forever change the face of human evolution, and in time would make a profound change in the character of earthÕs natural environment as well.
From then until now the archaeological record of stone tools shows improvement and diversification, a progression that links the earliest crude stone tools to present day nuclear power plants and guided missiles in an essentially unbroken technological tradition. Whether the process of creating meaning began with gestures or vocalizations or perhaps some other unimagined device the effect in any case would have been to extend the capacity of the early Cultural hominids to meet the natural challenges to their survival. One can easily imagine the enormous advantages even a simple vocabulary of gestures would offer those of our ancestors who found themselves in competition with others lacking any such capacity to create meaning. With the ability to create meaning our early ancestors could learn more readily from one another, give and take directions, cooperate, translate experience into lasting improvements in techniques, and communicate their own experience readily to others. The more experience became differentiated and stored in symbols the greater the capacity for our ancestors to surmount the challenges of changing natural conditions and the more prominent culture became in their lives. Our ancestors became the biological means by which culture increased its range, diversified and improved in the way it served the survival capacity of our ancestors.
In other words it worked both ways. Not only were our ancestors the biological vehicle that carried the spread of culture across continents; culture provided our ancestors with the means to spread, diversify and become vastly more numerous. One sees the explosive effects of the emergence of culture in both the paleontological and archaeological records. Prior to 2.5 million years ago our ancestors were small-bodied and not especially numerous, successful in their way, but not especially dominant in their locales, and for the majority of the time between then and now they were apparently restricted in their distribution to a few locations in East and South Africa. Since the emergence of culture our lineage: 1) increased substantially in brain size and body size, 2) not only made and used tools but also began to accumulate steady improvements in their design , 3) experienced a marked reduction in sexual dimorphism characterized by male phenotypes becoming increasingly feminized, and 4) extended their range to include temperate, boreal, subarctic, and, very recently, Arctic regions in addition to the tropical and subtropical latitudes in which our line had its beginnings. All this took place in what amounts to nothing more than a blink in the eye of geological time.
This explosion of our kind across the earth's surface appears due in the main to culture's having vastly augmented the inherent adaptability of primate mammals. If one stands back and observes the overall pattern, it appears clear that over the past 2 million years cultural evolution and human biological evolution seem to have interacted in what might be thought of as a kind of syncopated duet -- a positive feedback relationship some would call it. Improvements in tools extended our ancestors adaptability to nature and brought into being more complexity in the environment which favored increases in the size and complexity of our ancestorsÕ brains which in turn provided the basis for improvements in as well as more and different kinds of cultural things stimulating further cultural adaptability, with more adaptability more complexity, which favored even larger and more complex brains and on and on.
At the close of the Cultural stage, roughly 10,000 years ago, our ancestors had become indistinguishable in appearance from us, they had acquired articulate speech, and they had established residence on every continent except Antarctica. Everywhere humankind pursued a hunting and gathering way of life similar in its character to the way of life among recent and contemporary hunter/gatherers. Though not possible to confirm with certainty, it seems probable that like the recent hunter/gatherers these late stage Cultural hominids were a migratory people who lived in small social groups -- bands -- regulated in part by inherent biological differences in age and sex and partly through the reciprocal expectations created by kinship relationships. Moreover these groups saw themselves as special and the spirits of animism doubtless dominated their view of their place in the scheme of things and the way they explained how the world works. Life was hard by our standards, food was seldom plentiful, mortality was high, life expectancy short, and maladies we think of as minor -- tooth decay, allergies, broken bones, colds, infections, etc. -- were often serious and even fatal. Yet there were no poor because there were no wealthy, crime was rare, young and old shared common values, and, if contemporary hunter/gatherers are any basis for judging, there was far more time over a short life span for leisure and laughter than there has ever been since. Overall it appears that during the Cultural stage the relationship between the human animal and culture was mutually beneficial. So while we need not make noble savages of our Cultural stage ancestors, it does appear worth observing that as it came to an end there prevailed a kind of soft equilibrium, a harmony, in the interactions among our species, culture, and nature. Culture evolved in concert with human biological evolution and neither process left behind a devastating footprint on the landscape. All that would change in the Hypertcultural stage.
5. Culture Now Challenges Our Capacity To Adapt To Culture.
and continues to do so at an ever accelerating rate. I call this second stage the Hypercultural stage in cultural evolution. The Hypercultural stage is characterized by a pattern of geometric increase in the growth in culture from then until now. Geometric increases of this sort must inevitably come to an end in a finite universe and when the end comes it arrives abruptly and largely without warning.
A number of obvious inferences can be drawn from Fig. 1. First, the processes of human biological and cultural evolution, formerly an especially clear instance of co-evolution Š a kind of syncopated duet in which changes in one process create conditions that generate reciprocal changes in the other -- became uncoupled at the beginning of the Hypercultural stage. Second, the number of cultural items and varieties grows at an accelerating rate while the human animal appears to have evolved very little if at all during the Hypercultural. Third, the rapid increase in the inventory of cultural forms and the absence of significant change in the evolution of the human animal implies further that biologically we are adapted to natural and cultural conditions that passed out of existence beginning about 10,000 years ago. Fourth and finally, culture, once in the service of humankindÕs evolutionary success, now itself creates increasingly difficult adaptive challenges to our continued success..
The plethora of cultural stuff today comes directly or indirectly from technological innovations. Agriculture, for example, directly stimulates the emergence if a wide variety of objects and techniques that gradually improve upon the efficiency of human energy in the cultivation of domesticated plants and animals Indirectly the onset of agriculture brings people together to form sedentary social groups ranging in size and complexity from small subsistence settlements organized around kinship relationships to vast empires socially stratified into hierarchical classes. In providing a generally more abundant and predictable food supply, agriculture also brought with it new adaptive challenges such as increased susceptibility to the spread of infectious disease, an increasingly exclusive reliance on a cultivated crops which diminished dietary variety which, in turn, set the stage for an increase in dietary deficiency diseases. Moreover it is ironic but agricultural communities became more susceptible to famine as they became more completely dependent upon stable climatic conditions that are however usually unstable. Agriculture in places of extraordinary surpluses gave rise to poverty among many and bloated wealth to a few as a result of the vast inequities maintained by a rigid class hierarchy.
Technological innovations continue to accelerate the growth of culture even now as they continue to transform nature Š including human beings -- into cultural forms. For example. tropical forests into hamburgers, black sludge into petroleum, human beings into soldiers, politicians, terrorists, and nuns. Such changes seem always to come at an adaptive cost and the litany of recent challenges Š pollution, reductions in biodiversity, depletion of non-renewable sources of energy, etc. -- that have come in their wake has become all too familiar. Acquiring natureÕs basic resources Š food, shelter, offense and defense, a protected place to conceive, bear, and nurture our young Š may come more easily to some among our species today but adapting to the stresses that come from cultural sources now takes far more effort for all of humankind than it ever did in the past.
One major source of stress may be worth emphasizing and that is the intensifying conflicts between new and old institutions and beliefs. Unlike technological items which are readily displaced when others come along that do the same or more work with greater efficiency, social institutions and belief systems persist and continue long after the conditions that brought them into existence. Whereas technological innovation is the ultimate source of cultural novelty and as such often the source of disruption, social institutions and ideologies serve to integrate and to maintain or restore stability within cultural systems. Technological innovations come about at a dizzying speed during the Hypercultural while the institutional and ideological responses to them persist and accumulate long after the conditions that brought them into existence have disappeared. As they accumulate the institutions and beliefs compete with one another and create conflict.
The institutions and beliefs of yesterday thus become the source of conflict today. We need not look any further than our own circumstances to confirm this. Modern day schools were created at a time when values were slow to change, when Pop worked in the fields and Mom stayed at home and cooked and cared for the (often large) family, and divorce was rare. Today we expect schools to accommodate a wholly different set of needs. Religions formed out of pastoral conditions long ago have become the sources of some of the worldÕs most devastating conflicts. Beliefs created long ago become the criteria we use to make everyday decisions in the present. We still believe in free will and still believe that we are the prime movers who make things happen when it has become increasingly clear that we are the medium through which cultural forces are expressed.
Today culture consists of an awesome array of material objects, competing beliefs, and social institutions Some are new and some old.. These are the conditions to which all of humankind must adapt today and the rate at which they are proliferating continues to accelerate. This would seem to make a strong case for making a concerted effort to understand culture and the role it plays in our lives. Yet we donÕt seem to place much emphasis on learning more about culture. One doesnÕt hear parents asking school boards to emphasize the importance of their children knowing more about the role culture plays in their lives. The biggest obstacle in the way of making the effort is the widespread ancient belief that we already know how culture works. We still believe we are the ones who guide and direct its course.
Biocultural anthropology could place the task of disseminating the role of culture in the lives of humankind as their first order of business. Its practitioners could open the discussion and take us in the direction of improving our understanding of our place in the scheme of things and perhaps thereby improve our chances of continuing well into the future. But, ironically, because of all the conflicting pressures placed upon us by culture we are not likely to make the effort. I remain, in other words, more hopeful than optimistic.
On the other hand, determinism implies that everything we do has an effect. The consequences of what we do, however, are not ours to control. The effect of what we do becomes shaped by the largely cultural conditions that surround our lives. We cannot, in other words, limit the effect of what we do to ourselves. Indeed in a world of cause and effect we can never escape from having an effect, the cause of that effect represents a synthesis of our experience. How could it be otherwise? This may be the most important lesson the principles of anthropology have to teach us: who we are, what we do, and the consequences of what we do express the cultural conditions of our experience, past and present. We are not, according to this way of thinking about ourselves, the prime movers as we, many of us at any rate, assume. The most difficult thing for many of us to see when looking upon ourselves (ironically because of our cultural experience) is that we are the means by which cultural forces are expressed. In this regard human beings are to culture as enzymes are to cells. Hard to swallow but only when applied to ourselves. We look at others who lead lives very different from our own from this deterministic perspective all the time. The problem then amounts to looking upon ourselves in the same way we are used to looking upon others
These inferences could lead us to regard learning about culture and understanding the role it plays in our lives as an urgent matter. However, I see little or no evidence that we, humankind in general and those of us who live within the constraints of modern technologically advanced cultural conditions, are headed in that direction.