Created | Updated Jan 12, 2012
Culture is what makes humans people. It is the way we interpret our biology and our environment. In fact, culture is so pervasive in human existence that it is our environment. Much of the change in cultural is due to its adaptation to the environment and historical event, but more importantly, given that culture is our primary adaptive mechanism (much faster than evolution) and that it is the greater part of our environment, most of cultural change is in fact culture adapting to itself.
What is Culture?
This is a difficult question. Culture is such an integral part of our existence that we automatically think of culture as being whatever is 'normal' for us. We rarely stop to consider what is a possible cultural behaviour. Another problem with trying to define culture is that people often try to define it in a way that separates human beings from other animals. This is troublesome because what we call 'human' traits aren't so much different in kind from those of other animals (especially primates) but in degree; ie, chimpanzees have big brains, but ours are bigger; bonobos are sexual, but we are more so. Our cultural behaviours are likewise not different in kind but in degree. There is a way to define a cultural behaviour that doesn't limit it to humans yet still encompasses the concept.
Another problem is that the word 'culture' denotes such a vast and imponderable concept that it may seem difficult to put into specific terms. since culture is the totality of everything we are and everything we interact with, such as neckties, socialism, handshakes, Christmas, bedsheets, lunch, clean shaven faces and legs, sandals, smoking, bread, slab-on-grade foundations, supermarkets, etc. The examples are endless and change depending on where you are, and who you're with. Rather than list them all, we have a definition for all of the possibilities. The easiest way to begin to break it down is to look at specific behaviours and all the things attached thereto. For a behaviour to be considered cultural it must have four characteristics:
It must be learned.
It must involve concepts, generalisations, abstractions, and ideas.
It must be shared through extragenetic transmission.
It must be realised through the use of artifacts, both concrete and abstract.
Let us look at each of these characteristics and examples of behaviours that exhibit them.
There is a species of ant that builds nests made of leaves. To build a nest, some of these ants pull the edges of two leaves together and hold them in place, while others carry larva in their jaws and 'sew' them together with the silk they secrete. This is certainly a complex feat of engineering, but is it cultural? No. This behaviour is instinctive, built into the ants behaviour mechanisms. The cannot alter their plans or think of better ways to join leaves. They cannot teach or be taught to do so.
But there are examples of animals that can learn behaviours, such as dogs. A dog doesn't know instinctively not to urinate or defecate indoors, but it can be taught not to do so. Dogs are capable of learning specific behaviours.
Concepts, Generalisations, Abstractions and Ideas
We have seen that a dog's acquisition of a behaviour satisfies one of the requirements of culture, but it also fulfils another. If you were to take a dog that has learned not to eliminate indoors to a different house, it would still know not to eliminate there. This is because the dog has made a generalisation. It knows not to urinate or defecate in any house, not just the one in which it was taught. However, this behaviour only makes two of the four requirements, as we'll see.
Behaviour Shared through Extragenetic Transmission
For a behaviour to be considered cultural it must be shared extragenetically; it must be taught. If a trained dog is introduced to a puppy that doesn't know not to eliminate in a house, it cannot teach it. A particularly intelligent puppy might eventually learn not to eliminate in people's houses by observing the older dog, but no active teaching would have taken place.
Contrast this with an observed group of Macaque monkeys. Some scientists wanted to learn about eating behaviours in Macaque monkeys, so they put some sweet potatoes on a beach near where they lived. The sweet potatoes got sandy and, as the monkeys disliked dirty food, they would spend some time picking the sand off. One young female, however started taking her potatoes to a freshwater pool to rinse off. She showed the others how to do so as well. The scientists then threw wheat on the sand, hoping the monkeys would spend more time picking the food out and they would have more time to observe them. The same young female just scooped up handfuls of wheat and sand and dumped them in the water. The sand sank and the wheat floated, which she ate. This practice also quickly spread through the group. This is what we could call a proto-cultural behaviour. It is learned, it involves concepts and generalisations, and it is taught. There is only one thing missing.
Use of Artifacts, both Concrete and Abstract
Cultural behaviour must involve the use of artifacts. The most famous example in the animal world is the termite stick. Some chimpanzees in Tanzania have learned to fish termites out of their nests using sticks. They select a stick and modify it to fit down an opening in a termite nest, insert it, wiggle it around and withdraw it, eating the termites that have attacked the stick and stuck to it. This fits our criteria for cultural behaviour. It is not genetically programmed. Not all chimps do it, as would happen if it were built into the chimps' genes. It involves several complex generalisations and ideas, involving understanding the termites' behaviour and how to exploit it, and conceiving of a tool with which to do so. It is taught by mother chimps to their offspring. And it involves the use of an artifact: the stick itself.
The difference between the culture of our species and the behaviours exhibited by others is that humans cannot survive without culture. Everything we see, touch, interact with and think about is cultural. It is the major adaptive mechanism for our species. We cannot survive winters in upper latitudes without protective clothing and shelter, which are provided culturally. We cannot obtain food without being taught how. Even reproduction is arguably learned rather than instinctive. Whereas other organisms that exhibit cultural behaviour don't necessarily need it for the perpetuation of their species, we absolutely cannot live without it.
Language is an important element in human culture. It is the primary abstract artifact by which culture is transmitted extragenetically (fulfilling points 3 and 4). Only so much can be shown, much more must be explained. Most transmission of the knowledge, ideas, and values that make up a given culture, from the ten commandments to this entry, is done through language. Again, language is an aspect from which we differ to animals in degree rather than kind. Once more it is other large primate who share similarities with our species. Though these primates lack the larynx structure that allows for sophisticated vocalisation, there are other ways of communicating. The famous female gorilla, Koko, was taught to communicate in American sign language, and she taught it to other gorillas as well.
Misconceptions About Culture
Culture does not mean civilisation. It's not necessary to have cities in order to have a culture. Every society does the best it can with its circumstances. Any given society, and therefore the culture that reflects it, is neither more advanced nor more backward than any other; it is simply the way it is because that way works. If the circumstances should change due to environmental change, population pressure, or historical events, then the culture changes. None are wrong, and none are right. There is therefore no, 'white man's burden' to 'lift up' the so-called 'third world' countries. An agrarian society (such as Bali) shouldn't be forced into a capitalistic world that uses money simply because we see ourselves as more advanced.