“Culture is not causeless and disembodied.  It is generated in rich and intricate ways by information-processing mechanisms situated in human minds.  These mechanisms are, in turn, the elaborately sculpted product of the evolutionary process.  Therefore, to understand the relationship between biology and culture one must first understand the architecture of our evolved psychology.”
The Adapted Mind – Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby  


The Bioevolutionary Underpinnings of Culture

     The best place to begin a discussion of the connection between culture and behavior is with the most recent research and theoretical trends we have in the social and behavioral sciences.  The study of unique cultures led me first to cross-cultural psychology, which is the formal study of how culture influences thought, emotion and behavior.  But this wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity.  From there I developed a desire to go beyond the culturally unique and find the culturally common, or the universal human nature that underlies all human cultures.  This in turn made me to want to know how the culture common or universal got there to begin with, which led me to the study of evolutionary psychology and evolutionarily informed neuroscience and allowed me to know how and why the universal human psychological architecture evolved and how it actually works within the brain and body to create thought, emotion, behavior and ultimately culture.   I also wanted to understand the biological basis of the various human intelligences which are universal and which we all have by virtue of our species membership.  And lastly, I wanted to know how different cultures define intelligence and encourage the development of particularly valued intelligences among a group of people.

       These four very exciting fields of cross-cultural psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and the study of the biological basis of human intelligence are on the cutting edge of the study of human thought, emotion and behavior.  The social and behavioral sciences are going through a welcome transformation whereby they are becoming more conceptually, theoretically and empirically integrated with the physical and natural sciences which is bringing into focus the biological basis for human behavior.  Cross-cultural psychology is allowing us to understand the influence of culture on the human mind.  Neuroscience is giving us the small picture of how the brain and nervous system works by means of electrochemical processes and neural circuits that allow consciousness, perception, cognition, emotion and behavior.   Evolutionary psychology is giving us the big picture by showing us how and why our hominid ancestors evolved these neural and cognitive capabilities in their ancestral environments and how our ancient predispositions help shape universal human culture.  Evolutionary psychology is also, along with neuroscience, looking at the type and functions of neural circuits that guide and predispose us to thing, feel and behave in certain ways.   And the study of human intelligence is allowing us to better understand the biological basis of intelligence as well as the sociocultural aspects of intelligence.

     The American philosopher and pioneer psychologist William James stated one hundred years ago that humans have more instincts than animals, not less.   Indeed, we humans have an abundance of instincts in the form of neural circuits.  This does not mean that we are simply unthinking animals acting out the dictates of the brain, that we have no free will.  On the contrary, the fact that humans are remarkably adaptable and have developed an equally remarkable number of rich and diverse cultures throughout our history is proof of our “flex-ability.”  The great number and content of our neural circuits, as well as the plasticity of the brain, is what allows us such flexibility and adaptability.

     Human universal and species-typical patterns of thought, emotion and behavior are testimony to our evolved common biological heritage.  Humans have species-typical needs in the areas of survival and reproduction such as the need for institutions like the family and the status hierarchies that become systems of social, economic and political order.  Humans are designed to both compete and cooperate, to seek mates for sexual reproduction, and to rear children in certain ways.  These and others are the universal and innate predispositions which become manifest in various forms in all human societies and they have recently been referred to as Metaculture by Tooby, Cosmides and Barkow in their groundbreaking book entitled The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture.

     But because we live within different physical and social environments we have developed and continue to develop an immense variety of different ways to address our species-universal needs.  These different ways that we address our universal human needs within different environments is called culture.  Our evolved common biological heritage has given us predispositions for various patterns of perception, thought, emotion and behavior (universal human nature) which when expressed in different environments produces different cultures.  The discussions that follow are about trying to understand, to live and work with people from cultures that are different from our own, and to become successful teachers within these different cultures.

     There is a considerable body of scientific evidence in support of the fact that all humans, by virtue of the human genome, possess a species-typical neuropsychological architecture consisting of hardwired predispositions for certain patterns of thought, emotion and behavior which add up to a universal human nature.  These predispositions operate through neural circuits in the brain and nervous system, through hormones in the bloodstream, and indeed throughout the entire physiology of the organism.  Within this neuropsychological and physiological framework humans have immense latitude of thought, emotion and behavior that adds up to what we call free will.  We even have the free will and ability to go completely against these natural predispositions if we so choose, but the framework of predispositions is nonetheless there within each and every one of us.

     This universal human nature, or metaculture, provides the basic framework within which specific cultures are free to develop in their own unique ways in response to unique aspects of their physical and social environments.  But this does not necessarily always imply a strict causal determinism whereby the physical or social environment dictate cultural content, although this is no doubt sometimes the case.  Layers of culture form upon and out of previous layers of culture over historical time and there are cumulative effects which allow for rich and varied cultural phenomenon which may seem to have no apparent adaptive functions – culture can take on a life of its own.

     In cultural studies we so often emphasize the uniqueness of a people’s culture and the ways in which it is so exotically different from our own that we fail to see and appreciate the underlying common structure of human nature.  This universality is apparent everywhere, and in social sciences such as cultural anthropology or sociology all you have to do is look at any introductory textbook and find chapters based upon what are species-typical institutions such as marriage, family, childrearing practices, politics, economics, religion, collective behavior, deviancy and social control.                       

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