Culture and Adaptation

The Origins of Culture

Culture is a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of human phenomena that cannot be attributed to genetic inheritance.

Learning Objectives

Paraphrase what is currently thought to be the reason for the development of language and complex culture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The term ” culture ” has two meanings: (1) the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act creatively; and (2) the distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world acted creatively and classified or represented their experiences.
  • Distinctions are currently made between the physical artifacts created by a society, its so-called material culture and everything else, including the intangibles such as language, customs, etc. that are the main referent of the term “culture”.
  • The origin of language, understood as the human capacity of complex symbolic communication, and the origin of complex culture are often thought to stem from the same evolutionary process in early man.
  • Language and culture both emerged as a means of using symbols to construct social identity and maintain coherence within a social group too large to rely exclusively on the pre-human ways of building community (for example, grooming).

Key Terms

  • community: A group sharing a common understanding and often the same language, manners, tradition and law. See civilization.
  • horticulture: The art or science of cultivating gardens; gardening.

Culture (Latin: cultura, lit. “cultivation”) is a modern concept based on a term first used in classical antiquity by the Roman orator, Cicero: “cultura animi. ” The term “culture” appeared first in its current sense in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, to connote a process of cultivation or improvement, as in agriculture or horticulture. In the 19th century, the term developed to refer first to the betterment or refinement of the individual, especially through education, and then to the fulfillment of national aspirations or ideals. In the mid-19th century, some scientists used the term “culture” to refer to a universal human capacity.

In the 20th century, “culture” emerged as a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of human phenomena that cannot be attributed to genetic inheritance. Specifically, the term “culture” in American anthropology had two meanings: (1) the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively; and (2) the distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world acted creatively and classified or represented their experiences. Distinctions are currently made between the physical artifacts created by a society, its so-called material culture and everything else, including the intangibles such as language, customs, etc. that are the main referent of the term “culture.”

The origin of language, understood as the human capacity of complex symbolic communication, and the origin of complex culture are often thought to stem from the same evolutionary process in early man. Evolutionary anthropologist Robin I. Dunbar has proposed that language evolved as early humans began to live in large communities that required the use of complex communication to maintain social coherence. Language and culture then both emerged as a means of using symbols to construct social identity and maintain coherence within a social group too large to rely exclusively on pre-human ways of building community (for example, grooming).

However, languages, now understood as the particular set of speech norms of a particular community, are also a part of the larger culture of the community that speak them. Humans use language as a way of signalling identity with one cultural group and difference from others. Even among speakers of one language, several different ways of using the language exist, and each is used to signal affiliation with particular subgroups within a larger culture.

image

Nomads: Anthropologists rejected the idea that culture was unique to Western society and adopted a new definition of culture that applied to all societies, literate and non-literate, settled and nomadic.

Mechanisms of Cultural Change

The belief that culture can be passed from one person to another means that cultures, although bounded, can change.

Learning Objectives

Describe at least two mechanisms which foster cultural change

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Cultures are internally affected by both forces encouraging change and forces resisting change. These forces are related to social structures and natural events, and are involved in the perpetuation of cultural ideas and practices within current structures, which are themselves subject to change.
  • Cultural change can have many causes, including the environment, technological inventions, and contact with other cultures.
  • In diffusion, the form of something (though not necessarily its meaning) moves from one culture to another.
  • Acculturation has different meanings, but in this context it refers to replacement of the traits of one culture with those of another, such has happened to certain Native American tribes and to many indigenous peoples across the globe during the process of colonization.
  • “Direct Borrowing” on the other hand tends to refer to technological or tangible diffusion from one culture to another.
  • Griswold suggests that culture changes through the contextually dependent and socially situated actions of individuals; macro-level culture influences the individual who, in turn, can influence that same culture.
  • In anthropology, diffusion theory states that the form of something moves from one culture to another, but not its meaning. Acculturation theory refers to replacement of the traits of one culture with those of another.

Key Terms

  • assimilation: The adoption, by a minority group, of the customs and attitudes of the dominant culture.
  • habit: An action performed repeatedly and automatically, usually without awareness.

Fundamentally, although bounded, cultures can change. Cultures are internally affected by both forces encouraging change and forces resisting change. These forces are related to social structures and natural events, and are involved in the perpetuation of cultural ideas and practices within current structures, which are themselves subject to change. Resistance can come from habit, religion, and the integration and interdependence of cultural traits. For example, men and women have complementary roles in many cultures. One sex might desire changes that affect the other, as happened in the second half of the 20th century in western cultures (see, for example, the women’s movement), while the other sex may be resistant to that change (possibly in order to maintain a power imbalance in their favor).

image

Biology versus Culture: These two avatars illustrate the basic concept of culture. One is simply a reflection of his biology; he is human. The other is a reflection of his biology and his culture: he is human and belongs to a cultural group or sub-culture.

Cultural change can have many causes, including the environment, technological inventions, and contact with other cultures. Cultures are externally affected via contact between societies, which may also produce—or inhibit—social shifts and changes in cultural practices. War or competition over resources may impact technological development or social dynamics. Additionally, cultural ideas may transfer from one society to another, through diffusion or acculturation.

Discovery and invention are mechanisms of social and cultural change. Discovery refers to the finding of new knowledge within an existing realm. Generally, it relates to discovering new understanding of a particular behavior or ritual. Invention is the creation of a new device or process. New discoveries often lead to new inventions by people.

image

The Change of Symbolic Meaning Over Time: The symbol of the ankh has its roots in Egyptian religious practice, but the symbol diffused over time and was adopted by other groups, including pagans, as a religious symbol.

In diffusion, the form of something (though not necessarily its meaning) moves from one culture to another. For example, hamburgers, mundane in the United States, seemed exotic when introduced into China. “Stimulus diffusion” (the sharing of ideas) refers to an element of one culture leading to an invention or propagation in another.

Acculturation has different meanings, but in this context it refers to replacement of the traits of one culture with those of another, such has happened to certain Native American tribes and to many indigenous peoples across the globe during the process of colonization. Related processes on an individual level include assimilation (adoption of a different culture by an individual) and transculturation.

Cultural Lag

The term “cultural lag” refers to the fact that culture takes time to catch up with technological innovations, resulting in social problems.

Learning Objectives

Produce an example of cultural lag using an example of the tension between material and non-material culture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Cultural lag is not only a concept, as it also relates to a theory and explanation in sociology.
  • It helps identify and explain social problems and also predict future problems.
  • According to Ogburn, cultural lag is a common societal phenomenon due to the tendency of material culture to evolve and change rapidly and voluminously while non-material culture tends to resist change and remain fixed for a far longer period of time.
  • Due to the opposing nature of these two aspects of culture, adaptation of new technology becomes rather difficult.

Key Terms

  • innovation: The act of innovating; the introduction of something new, in customs, rites, and so on.
  • material culture: In the social sciences, material culture is a term, developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, that refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations.
  • non-material culture: In contrast to material culture, non-material culture does not include any physical objects or artifacts. Examples of non-material culture include any ideas, beliefs, values, and norms that may help shape our society.

The term cultural lag refers to the notion that culture takes time to catch up with technological innovations, and that social problems and conflicts are caused by this lag. Cultural lag is not only a concept, as it also relates to a theory and explanation in sociology. Cultural lag helps to identify and explain social problems and to predict future problems.

The term was coined by the sociologist William F. Ogburn in his 1922 work “Social Change with Respect to Culture and Original Nature. ” According to Ogburn, cultural lag is a common societal phenomenon due to the tendency of material culture to evolve and change rapidly while non-material culture tends to resist change and remain fixed for a far longer period of time. His theory of cultural lag suggests that a period of maladjustment occurs when the non-material culture is struggling to adapt to new material conditions.

Due to the opposing nature of these two aspects of culture, adaptation of new technology becomes rather difficult. As explained by James W. Woodward, when material conditions change, changes are felt in the non-material culture as well. But these changes in the non-material culture do not match exactly with the change in the material culture. This delay is the cultural lag.

Cultural lag creates problems for a society in different ways. Cultural lag is seen as a critical ethical issue because failure to develop broad social consensus on appropriate uses of modern technology may lead to breakdowns in social solidarity and the rise of social conflict. The issue of cultural lag tends to permeate any discussion in which the implementation of some new technology can become controversial for society at large.

image

Human Embryonic Stem Cells: As example of cultural lag is human embryonic stem cells. We have the necessary technology to turn stem cells into neurons but have not yet developed ethical guidelines and cultural consensus on this practice.

Animals and Culture

Animal culture refers to cultural learning in non-human animals through socially transmitted behaviors.

Learning Objectives

Formulate a thesis which defends the idea that non-human animals have culture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Much cultural anthropological research has been done on non-human primates, due to their close evolutionary proximity to humans.
  • One of the first signs of culture in early humans was the use of tools. Chimpanzees have been observed using tools such as rocks and sticks to obtain better access to food.
  • The acquisition and sharing of behaviors correlates directly to the existence of memes, which are defined as “units of cultural transmission ” by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
  • Though the idea of culture in animals has only been around for just over half of a century, scientists have been noting social behaviors of animals for centuries.
  • Aristotle was the first to provide evidence of social learning in the bird songs. Charles Darwin first attempted to find the existence of imitation in animals when trying to prove his theory that the human mind had evolved from that of lower beings.

Key Terms

  • meme: Any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.
  • social behaviors: In physiology and sociology, social behavior is behavior directed towards society, or taking place between, members of the same species.
  • cultural anthropological research: Cultural anthropology is a branch of anthropology focused on the study of cultural variation among humans, collecting data about the impact of global economic and political processes on local cultural realities.

Animal culture refers to cultural learning in non-human animals through socially transmitted behaviors. The question of the existence of culture in non-human societies has been a contentious subject for decades due to the inexistence of a concise definition for culture. However, many scientists agree on culture being defined as a process, rather than an end product. This process, most agree, involves the social transmission of a novel behavior, both among peers and between generations. This behavior is shared by a group of animals, but not necessarily between separate groups of the same species.

image

Animal Culture: A chimpanzee mother and baby.

Tools and Learned Activities

One of the first signs of culture in early humans was the use of tools. Chimpanzees have been observed using tools such as rocks and sticks to obtain better access to food. There are other learned activities that have been exhibited by animals as well. Some examples of these activities that have been shown by varied animals are opening oysters, swimming, washing food, and unsealing tin lids. The acquisition and sharing of behaviors correlates directly to the existence of memes, which are defined as “units of cultural transmission” by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. It especially reinforces the natural selection component. These learned actions are mechanisms for making life easier, and therefore longer.

History of Animal Culture

Though the idea of culture in animals has only been around for just over half of a century, scientists have been noting social behaviors of animals for centuries. Aristotle was the first to provide evidence of social learning in the bird songs. Charles Darwin first attempted to find the existence of imitation in animals when trying to prove his theory that the human mind had evolved from that of lower beings. Darwin was also the first to suggest what became known as ‘social learning’ in explaining the transmission of an adaptive behavior pattern throughout a population of honey bees.

Much cultural anthropological research has been done on non-human primates, due to their close evolutionary proximity to humans. In non-primate animals, research tends to be limited, so the evidence for culture is lacking. The subject has become more popular recently, prompting more research in the field.