Dec. 13th, 2007

flewellyn: (Default)
So, I was reading a forum today, I forget where, and happened upon a debate about human evolution. Specifically, it was about various behaviors you see in humans, and whether they were adaptive behaviors, or arose from cultural influences. Yet another incarnation of the old "nature vs. nurture" argument, in other words.

The problem I have with these arguments is that they imply a disparity that does not exist. I submit that culture is our collection of evolved adaptive instincts. Humans have three traits, three defining behaviors, that make up our evolutionary bag of tricks: language skills, tool use, and social structure. These three things are what make up a culture, and give humans our uniqueness.

The individual traits are hardly unique to humans, of course! Many animals use sounds to communicate, many animals use tools, and there are lots of social animals as well. However, only a few animals have all three (primates and cetaceans), and only humans have taken those three and made them the entire survival strategy of the species. We have no other mechanisms BUT these three behaviors for adapting to an environment: no natural weapons, no camouflage, no protective coverings, zip. Physically, our bodies are extremely generic, and it's only through language, tools, and socializing that we survive and thrive.

Look at how human children develop. One of the first skills babies learn, even before they can talk, is how to recognize faces. This is key to social interaction. Then they learn language, and as any child psychologist, or any parent, could tell you, children learn languages amazingly quickly, considering how complex human language really is. Then, of course, in very short order, young children start learning tool use: picking things up and messing with them to see what they can do and how they can be used.

The combination of language, tool use, and social structure, each one reinforcing the other, creates culture. Cultures, in my view, are really just collections of ideas, knowledge, and behaviors that have (mostly) proven adaptive over time; or sometimes, haven't proven maladaptive enough to be eliminated. Cultures evolve as the world changes, and as the needs of the people living in that culture change. New ideas come around and may be rejected, or if they prove adaptive (and can out-compete old ideas), may be accepted and incorporated into the culture. (Sometimes this happens fitfully, and rejected ideas can come back after they'd been abandoned, but that's an artifact of our culture-making strategy: humans have a tendency to want to hold onto ideas they learned when they were young, and sometimes this can be very hard to overcome.)

And, of course, cultures meet, and exchange ideas with each other; obviously, they also can clash with each other, or absorb each other, or one can be absorbed by another, or...well, you get the idea. Check any history book for more info.

Obviously, how people interact with the culture they live in has HUGE bearing on their survival and success, in evolutionary terms. People who, for various reasons, would not be able to survive living on their own in the wilderness (and that's most of us, folks) can have productive and meaningful lives living in their societies, fulfilling cultural needs. Traits that would doom a non-cultural animal may simply be inconvenient to a human, such as various disabilities or genetic diseases. On the other hand, cultural effects can kill people who would otherwise live, or otherwise take them out of the gene pool (monastic orders that vow celibacy, for instance).

Culture allows humans who cannot or will not have children, to still make a meaningful and lasting contribution to the species, which can in turn affect the survival and success of other humans. Through culture, we can survive and thrive in environments which are extremely hostile, and which other species from our original native home in east Africa would find completely inhospitable, if not instantly lethal. Culture gives us access to a variety of food sources enjoyed by no other species on the planet, enables us to live at population densities unmatched by nearly any other animal, and in short, gives us the ability to adapt to nearly any situation. It's the most adaptive set of behaviors any animal on this planet has ever evolved.

The entire question, then, of "nature versus nurture", with regards to human behavior, is ultimately meaningless. My answer? Nurture is our nature.


flewellyn: (Default)

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