Thursday, February 25, 2010

Culture Vultures and Sick Societies

As sociologist George Homans once observed, many social scientists are "culture vultures." Culture vultures explain social behavior by saying that this is "because of the culture." The problem is that this doesn't really explain anything, unless we can explain why a culture is the way it is and how it came to be that way. To explain how and why cultural beliefs and practices work (or don't work) the way they do, we need to explain how cultural history is constrained by human nature. But modern proponents of the idea of culture often reject this, because they think of culture as a constructive activity that transcends nature.

Immanuel Kant originally formulated the modern concept of culture (Kultur), particularly in his essay "Speculative Beginning of Human History" and in his Critique of Judgment (secs. 83-84). Kant conceived of culture as that uniquely human realm of artifice in which human beings escape their natural animality to express their rational humanity as the only beings who have a "supersensible faculty" for moral freedom. Through culture, human beings free themselves from the laws of nature. Although culture has become a vague concept in the social sciences, it retains all of the central features prescribed by Kant. (1) Culture is uniquely human. (2) It is uniquely human because only human beings have the understanding and the will to set purposes for themselves by free choice. (3) Culture is an autonomous human artifice that transcends nature. (4) Culture is the necessary condition for forming moral values.

This understanding of culture entered English anthropology in 1871, when Edward Tylor in Primitive Culture defined culture as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Beyond anthropology, this concept of culture supports the common view of the "social sciences" and the "humanities" as separated from the "natural sciences." The "sciences of the spirit" (Geisteswissenschaften) must be separated from the "sciences of nature" (Naturwissenschaften). This same separation supports the idea of history as the human transcendence of nature.

Darwin's argument for the continuity between human beings and other animals denies the Kantian concept of culture by denying the dichotomies on which it rests: biology versus culture, nature versus nurture, instinct versus learning, animality versus humanity, facts versus values. But those social scientists who accept Darwin's argument provoke intense opposition from their colleagues. For example, the conflict between biological anthropologists and cultural anthropologists often becomes so heated that they have to be put into separate academic departments, because they can't find any common ground.

Human societies are cultural constructions. But cultural constructions are not arbitrary products of some autonomous realm of mental experience that floats above the natural world. The cultural constructions of human society are constrained by the natural desires and natural conditions of human existence.

Far from being set apart from biology, culture is part of animal biology, because if culture is defined as the behavioral transmission of information through social learning and social traditions, then many animals have cultures. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb recognize this in their book Evolution in Four Dimensions, when they present animal cultures as belonging to behavioral inheritance as one of the four dimensions of evolution.

In this way, Jablonka and Lamb break from the Kantian conception of culture as transcending biological nature. But then they also argue for symbolic culture as uniquely human, because it manifests a capacity for symbolic abstraction that goes beyond animal communication through signs.

Although I agree with them about the human uniqueness of symbolic culture, I am dissatisfied by their failure to elaborate a Darwinian science of symbolic culture and by their occasional suggestions that symbolic culture can become a purely arbitrary construction. I agree with them that although social events are unique as products of contingent circumstances, we should be able to develop "a general theory of historical cultural changes" (228). But while I think such a general theory of culture requires a general theory of human nature--of the regularities of natural human desires and propensities--as constraining cultural evolution, Jablonka and Lamb sometimes imply that they accept a Kantian conception of culture as showing a human freedom in transcending biological nature. They write:

"A broader view of heredity and evolution makes explicit the wealth of possibilities that are open to us, and the fact that our activities, as individuals and as groups, construct the world in which we live. In particular, recognizing that we have a history and can plan our future, that we are able to construct shared imaginary worlds and systematically explore them and strive for them, greatly expands our freedom. The plasticity of human behavior is enormous. On the basis of present biological knowledge, there is no way one can dismiss the power of historical social construction and explain the social and behavioral status quo in terms of genes or memes. We cannot transfer explanatory power and responsibility to these entities!" (380).

Here and elsewhere in their book (203, 230), Jablonka and Lamb come close to espousing a radical utopianism in which the uniquely human capacity for symbolic culture allows us to construct any imaginable world and then live in that imaginary construction. They say nothing about the history of utopias or of how that history shows that human biological nature frustrates utopian hopes. In Darwinian Natural Right, I devoted a lot of space to the history of utopias--from Plato's Republic to John Humphrey Noyes' Oneida Community to the Jewish kibbutzim--to show how the ultimate failure of these projects manifests the limits set by human biological nature.

"All societies are sick, but some are sicker than others." That's how anthropologist Robert Edgerton begins his book Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992). In contrast to the radical freedom for cultural constructions celebrated by Jablonka and Lamb, Edgerton argues that all societies can be rightly judged by how well they conform to human nature, and when we do that, we discover that most societies are maladaptive. Some societies serve the natural needs and desires of human beings better than others, but no society is fully successful. More particularly, Edgerton argues against the common assumption (particularly among anthropologists and Rousseauian philosophers) that primitive societies were always happy and harmonious, in contrat to the despair and conflict in modern urban societies. In laying out his evidence from anthropological studies, Edgerton shows how the evolved biological nature of human beings--their evolved desires and propensities--constrain cultural or symbolic evolution, so that those societies that frustrate natural human needs must necessarily become maladaptive.

Edgerton writes: "Populations the world over have not been well served by some of their beliefs such as, for example, those concerning witchcraft, the need for revenge, or male supremacy, and many of their traditional practices involving nutrition, health care, and the treatment of children have been harmful as well. Slavery, infanticide, human sacrifice, torture, female genital mutilation, rape, homicide, feuding, suicide, and environmental pollution have sometimes been needlessly harmful to some or all members of a society and under some circumstances they can threaten social survival" (p. 1).

The belief in witchcraft is a product of human symbolic culture that has appeared throughout human history. It is an example of a highly maladaptive belief that shows how prone human beings are to irrational beliefs that cause unnecessary harm. For instance, Edgerton cites the case of the Gebusi of Papua New Guinea, who had one of the highest homicide rates ever recorded by anthropologists, and most of the homicide victims were people thought to be witches. Even in Renaissance Europe, the belief in witchcraft caused social disruption.

In parts of Hindu India, people have believed that a widow could become divine by immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre. Anthropologist Richard Shweder has explained this practice of sati (or "suttee") as a heroic act that manifests "the deepest properties of Hinduism's moral world." But Edgerton recognizes it as another example of a delusional cultural practice that is maladaptive. He notes that sati has been prescribed only for women--widowers feel no duty to burn themselves to death to join their deceased wives. He also notes that most widows have resisted social pressure in choosing to live rather than killing themselves. Along with Chinese foot-binding and female genital mutilation, sati shows how practices harmful for women can be imposed on them by male-dominated cultures.

Cultural beliefs and practices are almost never equally beneficial for all members of society because individuals and groups have conflicting interests. Those with greater power and status will often favor beliefs and practices that allow them to exploit those with less power and status. Slavery is one prominent example of such an exploitative cultural practice. Similarly, tyrannical rulers have used their power to exploit those over whom they rule. The assassination of tyrants and rebellion against tyrannical rule show the popular resistance to maladaptive exploitation.

Warfare can be an adaptive practice insofar as every society must defend itself against military attack. But excessive militarism can become self-destructive. Many traditional societies have become caught in a cycle of blood feuding that leads to extinction.

I agree with Edgerton that the anthropological record of cultural evolution supports not cultural relativism but cultural evaluation. If we recognize the natural desires of human biological nature, we can judge societies by how well they satisfy those desires. We can then distinguish between those cultural beliefs and practices that are more adaptive and those that are maladaptive.

Does such a stance allow us to see progress in human social evolution? I think so. We can judge that the best regime (so far) is liberal democratic capitalism, because such a regime tends to be adaptive for most human beings in most circumstances. A liberal society allows human beings to freely pursue their diverse moral and religious visions without fear of repression from those who disagree with them, and it also allows for a freedom of scientific inquiry that ultimately increases our knowledge of and mastery over nature. A democratic polity allows human beings to organize political rule so that the power of rulers is limited and checked in ways that promote the common good and restrain the tendency to exploitation. A capitalist economy creates incentives for productive market exchanges that foster economic prosperity.

By many obvious measures, this modern regime of liberal democratic capitalism is more adaptive than previous regimes. Never before in human history have so many human beings lived such healthy and happy lives. This has emerged through a historical process of trial and error, and this historical process will continue to produce cultural innovations in the future. We haven't reached the "end of history." But we can say that while liberal democratic capitalist societies are sick, they are not as sick as most other societies in our history.

We might also judge that the best world regime (so far) is an international system of sovereign nations with international norms for free trade, just war, and human rights. This also has emerged by historical trial and error, which will continue into the future. And despite all the horrors of world history over the past century, we can see that this system of liberal internationalism is more adaptive for human beings than previous world systems.

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

I haven't gotten to this point in their book, so I'm really looking forward to reading it -- especially since as a Darwininan humanities scholar, it sounds like there is a lot to think (and disagree) about.

The systems you identified are of course spontaneous social orders. They have the features of being complex adaptive scale-free networks with relatively flat adaptive landscapes -- much like human brains, which allow us to adapt to almost every environment on earth. It is in the evolution toward such a generalist system that new levels of complexity have been able to arise thorughout the history of the universe. In other words, every system is maladaptive until it becomes universally adaptive. This is a theory I expound on at length in my book Diaphysics.