Human Nature is shaped by Culture: here’s how…

Oct 9, 2017 3: 03 pm

Humans, unlike whales and elephants, developed a system of learned behavior that was specialized at environmental manipulation – using technology to do everything from getting and processing food, to maintaining body microclimate. Tool use is, of course, prehumen: indeed, it is not limited to primates, and furthermore, creation of behaviorally augmented micro-climates is also not limited to humans, it is something that all nesting birds, beavers, rabbits, and social insects do. But humans represent a life form, like our closest relatives, that evolved to have such behavioral systems developing, not primarily as instinctive behavior, but as learned and shared behavioral complexes. We learn to build huts, igloos, cathedrals and skyscrapers: our cognitive biology does not need evolve to achieve that variation: cultural change will do.

It follows then that natural selection took on a trajectory favourable to all and any variations that made the evolving creature more sensitive to all things inter-subjective: instinctively eager to learn, to communicate, and to collaborate. Culture, then, is a cooperative venture, but paradoxically it thrives on individualism. Cultural information is so vast it helps to spread it around. Let the more detailed stuff reside in specialists. Depending on both collective and networked basic information for short term adaptation, cultures meet longer term risks by making specialized or esoteric knowledge and skill a function of individualistic – even sometimes eccentric – phenotypes. This brings in a useful diversity within each culture; upon which the selective forces that cause cultures to change and evolve, can act. It pays off to have some quirky people around.

Human beings are the collective mechanisms of cultural evolution.

Human nature is biological, but it is, in all the ways it has exceeded the need for obligatory behavior, a cognitive adaptation to culture. There is evidence that cultural adaptation and evolutionary changes can stress the human biological phenotype and challenge the limits of its plasticity. Among the most compelling evidence comes from the study of the relationship between stress and cognitive development: there appears to be causal link. Cognitive function in adults is linked to stresses experienced in fetal life and early childhood. In another example, a new stress introduced with technological development – electric light – has been seriously under-estimated.

The operation of natural selection on human cognitive biology is thus revealed as a relentless driver of all polymorphisms that increase sensitivity to cultural environments, to increase the capacity to act collectively and cooperatively on the basis of shared information and goals , while still retaining any and all polymorphisms for individuality, since these increase both receptivity to innovation and conservation, of both knowledge and skills. It also, however, increases our vulnerability to stresses directly due to cultural systems.

I think we can safely identify some universals that reflect the direction that the biological evolution, which have generally created cognitive and behavioral capabilities inherent in human nature which are specific adaptations to a cultural environment. Human beings are the collective mechanisms of cultural evolution. When stresses arise due to a bad fit between a culture and its environment, individual human beings become engaged with the problem and even agitated and preoccupied with finding a solution.

Bradshaw_rock_paintings

This does not happen to everyone, but disproportionately afflicts those whose particular interests, skills, or training puts them in position to spot problems first. It is the healer – whether 21st century physician or shaman, who notices an uptick in the incidences of illness, miscarriages, or deaths; it is the person making nightly observation of constellations who notices the approach of an eclipse; it is the person whose passion is the study of wildlife who will be the first to sound an alarm because he notices that seal or elephant or reindeer numbers have generally declined over his lifetime, especially compared to the oral records passed down through many generations of such detail-obsessed observers. The same is true of all deep bodies of observations and knowledge within human cultures. And they do not just pertain to observation of the material environment.

Depending on both collective and networked basic information for short term adaptation, cultures meet longer term risks by making specialized or esoteric knowledge and skill a function of individualistic – even sometimes eccentric – phenotypes. This brings in a useful diversity within each culture; upon which the selective forces that cause cultures to change and evolve, can act. It pays off to have some quirky people around.

Some of the most acute and specialized sensitivities are represented in individuals who are drawn to cultural auto-analysis. Philosophy, history, and “social” science are not universally appealing, of course. Indeed the more practical problem spotters and tinkerers, like modern-day engineers, mathematicians, and other practical architects and innovators, are often impatient with those whose preoccupations, at times, verge on cultural naval-gazing.

So a null hypothesis appears to have more support: culture is the same cognitive niche in all societies, regardless of how their economies adapt to their physical environments.

Questioning existing cultural narratives – especially pointing out that such stories are possibly system-justifying rather than empirical – arouses almost visceral antagonism from those committed to believing these narratives: heretics, atheists, and “apostates” exist in realms other than religion. The kinds of paradigm shifts that begin with a few philosophical musings about empirical outliers and inconsistencies, and then snowball among the obsessional specialists, at first arouse widespread conflicts with established narratives and their “believers”. This can get people ostracized or even killed. The fate and heroic intelligence of Sophocles becomes a parable repeated in Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein. However it is endlessly repeated in the even more fraught when the revolution threatens establish elites: hence there is the constant creation of cultural narratives recounting the ordeals of narrative-revisionists; real or symbolic: Jesus, Marx , Ghandi, ML King, Kennedy, Lennon, – and even of reactionaries who led popular “counter-revisionist” movements, like Hitler, Stalin, Sheikh Mohamed Mutwali Sharawi , and Donald Trump.

Culture has been a relentless environment of adaptation; moreover it has not changed direction. If both Culture and genome DNA are replicators, acted upon by the forces of natural selection, and explicable in terms of Darwinian evolution, they dance a tango. It is an evolutionary trajectory of tremendous scale and time depth.

A Rabbit Show

Culture, this epi-biological cognitive niche, might, I suppose, be considered an extended phenotype. If so, it is the extension that took over the phenotype. You and I are living proof. To comprehend it all, we have to face some hard realities.

These essentially are on a par with other historical patterns of localized genetic and plastic responses characteristic within most species. With regard to behavioral/cognitive traits, there has been a focus, especially common in evolutionary biology and psychology, on the possible consequences of differential reproductive success. A recent example of this is the finding that there was a bottleneck and a subsequent serial founder effect during adaptive radiation out of Africa, lowering variability as distance from the source population increased. This could essentially be viewed as part of the micro-evolutionary history of our species, not necessarily explaining much about its initial evolution, but tremendously interesting in sorting out the origins of present day genetic variation and cultural diversity.

The role of men’s participation in war, of their social rank, and of their material wealth, has also been emphasized. Such micro-evolutionary forces, it appears, might have become particularly important after the development of agricultural economies. Thus, the discovery that a second bottleneck happened as farming populations, with evidence of a loss of diversity occurred mainly in the Y chromosome, and suggested that only a few men reproduced relative to the number of women who did. Perhaps this indicates increased polygyny (the Genghis Khan effect). There might be some truth in this, but to me it seems that this interpretation tends to ignore the greater impact of malnutrition, higher parasite loads, and infectious disease on male children, coupled with the rise of violent conflicts and warfare, all stressors which again tended to increase male mortality, especially among the poorer socio-economic classes. Recent studies indicate, for example, a higher rate of male fetal loss, even during short stressful events.

This historical time scale, falling within the known history of Anatomically Modern Homo sapiens, is in contrast the much deeper timescales that measure and mark the emergence of a new genus, Australopithecus, and then another, Homo, and of speciation within each of those genera. It is over this time scale – of at least 5 million years, that we must plot the evolution, not just of the genetic replicator that made us human, but also of the second replicator, culture. The tango, between the two, helps to explain many of the attributes we commonly acknowledge as “human nature” and simultaneously, of the species whose biological nature it is. Seen from this perspective, what support do we have for a hypothesis that human nature: identified as species-specific cognitive and “instinctive” behavior, has come under any new selective pressures since it emerged?

Insofar as cultural systems constitute the main cognitive niche, people in all cultures continue to display similar stable behavioral traits, such a “cooperative phenotype”. Paradoxically this is a one aspect of the “psychic unity” of humans, existing in the presence of a persistent high variability of temperament and personality in every population. So a null hypothesis appears to have more support: culture is the same cognitive niche in all societies, regardless of how their economies adapt to their physical environments.

Being playful, sexually as well as in other ways like joking, pranking, dancing, making music, putting on skits, and rituals, all are strategies that give humans ways of showing common ground, and of developing bonds and friendships continuously over the course of a lifetime.

Most human beings take great pleasure in maintaining networks of family and, just as importantly, of friendship. This facilitates higher mobility than kinship alone. It vastly enlarges the field of potential locations people can access over their yearly round. Hunter-gatherer bands, horticultural villages, pastoral camps, all have systems that facilitate intermarriage and exchange, often associated with exuberant ceremonies and rituals that bring together people from many bands, camps and villages. We see echoes of this in the way people even in urban industrial societies meet one another for drinks or lunches, give dinner parties, attend dances, and travel to visit others on holidays, and get excited about more exotic vacation destinations.

The voluntarily isolated “in-group” constantly competing and hostile to surrounding “out-groups” during our long evolutionary history is a myth. Cavemen sitting with clubs at the ready, to beat up intruding strangers or go capture wayward cave women, is fantasy.

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