Nature and culture (Anthropology)

At the foundation of cultural anthropology lies the notion of a great fault line sundering the world of human culture from the rest of the living world. On this view, part of our human constitution falls on one side of the line, the side explicable by biological and allied sciences. On that side we resemble other animals. But on the other side, dominated by our capacity for learning, language and the use of symbols, we reach beyond the ken of biology and attain our essential, unique and, so to speak, super-animal character. In his presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1958, Leslie White captured this doctrine in a memorable myth.

[Using symbols] man built a new world in which to live … He still trod the earth, felt the wind against his cheek, or heard it sigh among the pines; he … slept beneath the stars, and awoke to greet the sun. But it was not the same sun! . Everything was ‘bathed in celestial light’; and there were ‘intimations of immortality on every hand’. Between man and nature hung the veil of culture, and he could see nothing save through this medium . Permeating everything was the essence of words: the meanings and values that lay beyond the senses.

The imagery of this just-so story dividing humans from animals is fanciful, but the message is sincerely intended: human cognition and action are mediated by learned and therefore cultural, rather than by instinctive or inborn, responses. Since this is so, culture is a separate object of study, cultural variation is different in kind from biological variation, and cultural anthropology is an autonomous discipline, separate from the biological sciences.


Nevertheless the development of a notion of culture has from the beginning been driven hard from behind by the intellectual struggle against attempts to explain human behaviour and human variety using purely natural scientific means. It is therefore impossible to understand the concept ‘culture’ clearly without reference to its opposing concept, ‘nature’. In a wider perspective this struggle is but a fragment of the greater conflict over human nature which has been so pervasive a feature of intellectual life in the North Atlantic societies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For as the assurance of the natural sciences grew, and as more of the living world fell under their confident surveillance, so a conception of nature began to grow that was to be subject to an increasingly authoritative style of enquiry, which we know today as biology. The burning question then became: to what extent do humans fall into nature and therefore under the sovereignty of biological explanation? For some — and this is as true today as it was in the last century — the sway of such explanation was to be total. For others in sociology and related disciplines, however, humans and human society participate in a different order of existence altogether.

In the province of intellectual endeavour that became anthropology, the province concerned with human diversity, the struggle for a distinct science of humanity was led by Franz Boas (1858-1942) in the United States. To Boas we owe the creation of both the cultural anthropological attitude and the very profession of cultural anthropology itself. When he began work in the 1880s, Boas found in place a theory hardly fifty years old, but already very elaborate, which purported to explain the different varieties of people, their customs, and their apparently different mental capacities by reference to race. The race theory was firmly anchored in the new science of biology by evolutionary ideas which suggested that some races were more primitive than others, and therefore more animallike, or ‘theromorphic’, in bodily form, mental ability, and moral development. The theory measured each race against the supposedly most advanced, the Northern Europeans.

Boas broke the evidently seamless simplicity of this theory. He showed that bodily form is not linked to language or to any of the matters we associate with culture: attitudes and values, customs, modes of livelihood and forms of social organization. He argued that there is no reason to think that other ‘races’ (or, more accurately, other ways of life) are less moral or less intelligent than Northern Europeans, and so there is no single standard for evaluation. Moreover by his own strenuous example he showed that different cultures could, and should, be the object of intensive field research which would reveal forms and patterns in human life that were hitherto unsuspected. These patterns are so various, he argued, that they could not have arisen from a uniform process of social or cultural evolution but must rather be the fruit of complex local historical causes.

These ideas were set out in Boas’s The Mind of Primitive Man in 1911, but they were elaborated in the next generation by Boas’s large and brilliant group of students, which included Edward Sapir, "Alfred Kroeber, "Margaret Mead, and "Ruth Benedict, and by their students in turn. On this view, human culture is marked by its extreme plasticity, such that human beings,possessing everywhere much the same biological heritage, are nevertheless able to sustain kalei-doscopically differing sets of values, institutions and behaviours in different cultures. Yet if culture seems to this extent arbitrary in its variety, its possession is central to the human constitution, for without culture – without some learned collection of language and habits of thought and action – human beings could most literally not live. These ideas were well in place by the publication of Benedict’s Patterns of Culture in 1934. To achieve Leslie White’s just-so story of 1958 only a slight extra stress was needed, to the effect that humans are ‘symboling’ and classifying creatures, creatures who possess meaning. These ideas were hugely successful. They became the pons asinorum, the bridge separating those who understand anthropology from those who do not, and they serve even today as the entry to what grew into a vast professional academic discipline in the United States.

Culture and nature

The Boasian doctrine expanded and changed as well. Along one line of development nature/ culture became, for anthropologists who now studied culture alone, an unexamined or even dogmatic presupposition, an unquestioned feature of reality. Hence the distinction came to be applied just like any such general and governing idea, as a conceptual Swiss Army knife, useful for many purposes beyond its designers’ plans. The French anthropologist Levi-Strauss is perhaps the most influential representative of this turn. He argued that the nature/culture divide is not just an anthropologist’s concept, but is to be found among all societies in some form as a cognitive device for understanding the world. Indeed he went further, suggesting that it is the very making of a distinction between nature and culture that distinguishes humans from animals. Few have been willing to follow him around so many corners (and he later scaled down his claims about the universality of the distinction), but his example has given warrant to the use of nature versus culture as an interpretive device throughout anthropology. Some writers, for example, have suggested that the divide falls between men and women, such that women, or perhaps the processes of childbirth,are natural, whereas men, or the ritual and political processes they control, are cultural (for a critical review see MacCormack and Strathern 1980). The nature/culture divide is often used to great and illuminating effect, but it is worth remembering that the very concept is a product of, and is used by, only a small segment of the societies of the North Atlantic Rim in the twentieth century, and so may not enjoy the universal explanatory penetration that is sometimes claimed for it.

One of the other alternatives was to accept a notion of culture, but to turn back to scientific styles of explanation to give an account of it. The rise to prominence of the biological field of ecology after World War II stimulated some anthropologists to look for a new material logic underpinning cultural forms. The most famous, and least persuasive, example is Marvin Harris’s attempt to explain the worship of cattle in India by reference to the usefulness of cowdung to Indian farmers. A more plausible example is Roy Rappaport’s painstaking attempt to explain the religion of a Papua New Guinea people by their ecology and mode of livelihood. The force of such arguments often lies not so much in themselves as in their demonstration of weaknesses in the Boasian inheritance, which often glosses over complexities in social and material life that are not amenable to traditional cultural explanation.

In any case the vigour and anger of the replies to such arguments reveal how fervently many anthropologists cling to the autonomy of culture. Indeed, the temperature of the continuing conflict between the parties of biological and cultural determinism remains high. This conflict has ranged in the twentieth century across race, sexuality, gender, aggression, intelligence, nutrition and many more issues besides. It may seem merely antiquarian to stress the importance of Boas – until we realize that the research project on adolescent sexuality in Samoa proposed by him for Margaret Mead, a project which then seemed to demonstrate decisively the force of cultural over biological explanation, was challenged fiercely in the 1980s in the name of new forms of biological explanation. On the one hand, the notion of nature/culture has worked its way into conceptual vocabularies across the learned disciplines of the North Atlantic societies, and into the thought of psychologists, "ethologists, and even evolutionary biologists. Even British social anthropology, which for so long resisted the concept of culture, has silently accepted its importance. Yet on the other hand the disciplinary disputes continue because the biological sciences have very different schemes of training, and very different aspirations, than the cultural disciplines. And if anthropologists have grown in number and confidence, so have biologists: the biologists’ nineteenth-century claim for decisive authority has only been magnified by a growth in the professionalization and the accomplishments, and a fabulous growth in the authority and the funding, of biological sciences in the twentieth. In the mutual misunderstanding of the two parties it is often difficult to judge who are the more ignorant of the other and the more arrogant.


Yet the late twentieth century has seen the beginning of an extraordinary cooperative effort, by behavioural biologists, psychologists and anthropologists, not so much to reconcile the disciplines as to channel their conflicting energies into a greater project. Suppose, for a moment, that we took the two parties each to have revealed a broken fragment of the truth. Humans do vary greatly in their cultural endowments and those endowments bear heavily on their behaviour; yet humans, like other animals, came into being through forces best described as Darwinian. It follows then that humans evolved to have culture, so to speak: our big brains with their ability to manipulate symbols, along with our abilities to use our respiratory tracts for speech, comprise the Darwinian heritage that makes us the culture-bearing animal par excellence. This much might be admitted by even a very reductionist biologist or a very doctrinaire cultural anthropologist. What is only now coming to light, however, is a subtler picture, which shows that we have evolved not in the first instance as culture-bearing animals, but as social animals. Studies of childhood cognitive and emotional development, and comparative studies of other primates, show that beneath and around the stuff of culture there stands a scaffolding of social abilities and distinctly social intelligence. We can learn culture because we come richly equipped, even as the smallest infant, to enter into conscious and responsive social relations with our fellows. We become culturally knowledgeable because we first become socially knowledgeable, able to grasp and react to the moods and intentions of those around us in a way recognizably akin to, but a good deal more powerful than, that of our primate cousins. And because this scaffolding intelligence is both relatively powerful and flexible — because, in other words, it is a creative and imaginative intelligence — we can begin to see how humans have, quite naturally, been so productive of a rich panoply of differing cultures across the world.

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