Adam Ash

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Deep Thoughts: humans are animals with culture

Cultural Beings vs Natural Beings.
Untenable distinction. Despite the ingenuity of animals, culture is something unique to humans. This does not mean that humans cease to be natural beings. We can never escape from biology, and the confrontation with our natural limitations induces cultural creativity. The idea of a human science that is specifically different from natural science is untenable, and both have everything to gain by breaking their isolation from each other.
By Arne Jarrick
Professor of History at Stockholm University
Translated by Phil Holmes

Among all the things humans do there are some things that only humans do. Among all the things humanists research into there are some things that only they research into, namely that which especially characterises human beings. It is precisely by referring to the existence of something uniquely human that the human sciences defend their particular position among the other sciences.

There are good reasons for claiming such a unique position. It is obvious that humanists and social scientists over the centuries and millennia have provided knowledge about human beings that has no equivalent among the other areas of science, about circumstances without parallel among the other species: art and politics, war and institutions, religion and the economy, and other phenomena vital for us human beings to know something about. It is quite conceivable that this will continue in the future.

So far, so good. But often the idea about the special position of human beings and of the human sciences has led its representatives to the thought that humans are unique and therefore not quite natural beings, and even to the idea that they alone are not subject to the natural laws to which other living beings are subject. Then it is not all well and good any longer, as one does not cease to be a natural being just because one becomes a cultural being. The fact that a study of what is uniquely human justifies a specific area of knowledge, called the humanities, is therefore one thing, a practical thing without any internal relation to the absurd notion that human beings are free to alter themselves and their circumstances exactly as it suits them.

While it therefore seems clear that in the future there will also be a separate human science and a separate natural science with boundaries between the two, it is equally clear that researchers—now as in earlier days—have to transgress these boundaries if they want to understand human beings who, in their real lives, constantly demonstrate that these boundaries do not exist as more than merely an arrangement for classifying knowledge.

MANY SPECIES ARE JUST as social as human beings, but none are as inventive, as quick to learn or as communicative. The result of this is a constantly growing and changing richness of form in human society. Put another way, the result is that human beings have a history, that is to say they live in a society which is constantly changing, and in addition a global history as, thanks to their inventiveness, they have been able to colonise almost every type of environment.

Faced with all of the ingenuity and the abundance of forms, destructive as well as constructive, that characterise human society, it is reasonable to see culture as a unique phenomenon. There is, admittedly, no reason to believe in any absolute boundary between human beings and other animals. 1The absence of such a boundary does not, however, prevent human history from brimming over with evidence of a cultural development with no parallel among animals in general, however many characteristics we have in common with them. Genetically speaking, human beings and chimpanzees are very similar to each other, whether or not some people think the similarity is 98.6 per cent while others say it is 95 per cent. 2But this small difference in the prerequisites has made for a great difference in real life.

Culture is a phenomenon that is characteristic of the species, despite a few pieces of evidence about inventive and allegedly cultural animals. 3One of the more famous cases is the female Japanese macaque who in the 1950s had the idea of dipping a potato into water to wash the sand from it. Without being aware of it, she soon became celebrated worldwide for her quotidian innovation, and nowadays the incident is related everywhere in the literature dealing with culture among animals.

One might wonder what is considered to be so remarkable in this feat. It cannot be the innovation in itself. The animal kingdom is far too rich in geniuses that find new solutions to age-old problems, solutions that are no less remarkable than that of the female Japanese macaque. Instead, the remarkable thing about the macaque's potato washing was that it had radical and lasting results for the members of her species in her surroundings. They themselves began to wash potatoes in water instead of sponging off the fruits of the famous macaque's labours. What is more, the new habit was passed on to coming generations, and in this way became established as a natural feature of macaque life.

There are other examples of animals, it is claimed, which have carried out significant cultural acts. Even Darwin reported evidence of animals' abilities in calculated, deliberate problem-solving. The more closely one studied the lower beings, the higher they became, that is to say the more their behaviour seemed to be the result of learning rather than of innate "instincts." Chimpanzees have long been the subject of scientific interest. At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, Wolfgang Köhler conducted experiments showing that these primates closely related to us were capable of finding solutions to practical problems just by sitting and thinking. They did not have to devote themselves to the problem in a hands-on manner, although they did have to have the problem in sight in order to succeed. The chimpanzee experiments have continued subsequently, and in our own time Frans de Waal is one of the most famous of the primatologists who claims continuity between humans and apes. In the same way as us, chimpanzees can get annoyed with each other, but can also be kind and comforting. De Waal has observed how physically handicapped apes are helped by their fellow apes to survive to adulthood. Other researchers have even succeeded in teaching some primates to use a limited number of symbols - up to a hundred or so - in order to denote phenomena and express their wishes. This is the case with the celebrated chimpanzee Washoe, the gorilla Koko, and the dwarf chimpanzee Kanzi, the most famous of them all.

CULTURAL CASES OF THIS KIND among animals may be thought to provide solid support for the idea that the specific difference between humans and other animals is actually a question of degree. Like humans, some animals can learn new things in their lives and "transfer knowledge to future generations," as the population geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza has put it.

But it should at the same time be emphasised that these degrees of difference are huge and significant. Chimpanzees' cultural achievements are very basic; despite being skilful tool-users, they are able to only a limited degree to modify the objects they find in nature, and thus themselves create new tools. The cultural evolution that nevertheless does occur among certain animals in the form of tool use is, what is more, very slow, while one can say that the corresponding development among humans is both rapid and even accelerating.

This has to do with the human ability to learn from experience, which is the basis for the specific mental processes differentiating humans from other animals. Innovations must be transmitted between brains in order to survive, unlike so-called hereditary characteristics. Psychology or not, history provides a great deal of evidence about the incredible potential in this ability. Through collective learning in the form of technical loans some societies have been able to "miss out" stages in development that other societies have been forced to go through, which sometimes has drastically accelerated cultural change. By learning from other people's experiences some cultures in Africa, for example, were able to pass directly from the Stone age to the Iron Age without going through the Bronze Age, something that inversely seems to have been impossible for those societies where iron was introduced before this had happened anywhere else. It is difficult to imagine that some animals might be capable of similar imitation.

The transfer of the female macaque's potato washing proceeded very slowly—according to the evolutionary anthropologist Michael Tomasello, so slowly that it could scarcely have been the result of imitation, a fundamental element in human learning. Besides, it seems that washing food clean of sand is natural and readily acquired behaviour among macaques and other apes. Which is why the celebrated female macaque does not really deserve her fame. And if one disregards sand and potatoes, many animals' intellectual advances have been induced in experiments arranged by human beings. Yet there are very few primates, if any, which surpass the intellectual level of a two-year-old human child. The inverse relationship has of course never been seen: it was not Martians who taught human beings the alphabet; they themselves did this, as they themselves had thought it up.

Darwin, with his challenging ideas about the continuity between animals and humans, also placed human beings in a unique position. Only they could achieve cumulative improvement in their conditions, make tools, domesticate other animals and own things, think in an abstract way and be self-aware, create languages and have a feeling for beauty, feel gratitude as well as a belief in God, etc. And above all, only human beings were capable of burdening themselves with conscience and remorse, the inescapable result of what Darwin called their unique "moral instincts."

Against the background of observations and reflections of this kind one might therefore allow oneself to claim that culture and cultural change on the whole is a phenomenon specific to human beings, and that human beings are to this extent unique beings in the garden. Over the centuries many people have said precisely this. There are no problems in a claim of this kind. The problems lie in the corollaries, the hasty ones that are often made, and the better thought-out ones that should be made.

The first thing one must bear in mind is that the human being is not alone in being unique. Like us, the frog can achieve things that neither we nor other animal species can. Every species is unique on the basis of its specific ability, but like all other species also on the basis of its lack of the specific ability of some other species. From the viewpoint of humans, we seem especially remarkable, but not from that of the frog.

The second thing one should bear in mind is that we human beings are not cultural beings because we chose to be so, but because we have had to be so. We did not hold a world conference at some point in pre-history at which we decided to become cultural. We simply became so, only later to discover that we were. This means that we are not necessarily freer than other species just because we have a unique propensity for culture. I would even say that it is necessarily the other way round.

THERE IS NOTHING in our unique cultural situation to motivate a special science for the study of human beings; it is mostly motivated by the difficulty of gathering all knowledge in a single place. Culture is not a thing that can only be understood by means of a specific cultural science, just as nature is not something apart, intended for a natural science in splendid isolation. Just as cultural researchers should be unprejudiced and open to all relevant findings, the representatives of natural science have much to gain from making use of some of all that knowledge produced outside its own domains. It is knowledge that brims with evidence about the unique ability of humans continuously to renew and reshape their way of life.

There are nowadays quite a few people who say that the boundaries between the humanities and natural science should be guarded less anxiously and even be dissolved, that human researchers in the different disciplines should realise that they are studying the same thing although they have got used to approaching their studies in different ways.

Sadly, there are at the same time many people who continue to claim the outdated, more than century-old, scientific idea of distinctive scientific fields, that the two areas of science should be kept separate The idea was promulgated in the late 19th century by German and other philosophers worried that the so-called moral sciences would be ground to dust by the positivist-oriented natural sciences. In order correctly to study human beings and their consciousness as well as their unconscious required insight into the significance of the subjective, in contrast to the schematically objective order that natural science attempted to impose on the external world.

Similar ideas are asserted today among human scientists and cultural scientists as well as social scientists who fear the same thing, and who do not wish human beings to be reduced to their constituent parts. Human beings must be regarded as a higher, more irreducible entity than other species. In a spirit of this kind the anthropologists Clifford Geertz, David Bidney and Gordon Childe have independently put forward the idea that human beings "create themselves".

Faced with ideas of this kind, one has once again to make the distinction between the reasonable claim that humans are a species with exclusive properties and the unlikely idea that they might thereby be more independent of nature than other species. One is no less subordinated to certain natural processes just because one is unusual. If this were the case, then all species would be independent, as no one species is more unusual or common than another.

I do not know what "human beings create themselves" means, whether it should be understood poetically or as a seriously intended factual assertion. Perhaps it implies something like the fact that human beings, unlike other species, possess freedom of action, that they are masters of their own fate and therefore do not obey natural laws.
Inversely, it is simple to understand that human beings should be seen as entities, that is as living beings within which many processes work together, just as this entity works together in a larger entity with everything that surrounds it. This means at the same time that we human beings cannot escape the basic physical, electrical and chemical processes that are constantly active in nature, or in the world we have created for ourselves. If we are entities then so be it, and it is not possible therefore to detach culture as a particular and independent phenomenon, separated from the circumstances in which the culture is created.

YET IT IS NATURALLY POSSIBLE to think of culture as separate from nature. It is possible to think almost anything at all, and if human beings have a specific ability to think of what is absent, then they also have a well-documented ability to think about and desire the impossible. But whatever we think, and however spiritual and cultural we feel, we can, nevertheless, neither escape from our bodies nor from the physical environment that affects us, despite the fact that we, as the product of influences from all these forces, ourselves influence them in turn. An individual human being comes into the world with a genetically determined set of equipment that strongly influences how they then react to their experiences of the environment they encounter. As neither environment nor their experiences at the outset are determined by this specific individual's genes (despite the fact that the environment in the shape of other people is partially determined by this individual's genes), and both of these "forces" in their turn influence this individual's continued actions in the world, it is not possible in a simple way to determine what share the genes play in what the individual subsequently does.

As the so-called environment is constantly changing and in this way alters the prerequisites for the influence of the genes, it will presumably always be impossible to determine the share of the genes. But this does not mean that either the cloister, the library or some other spiritual location can offer a place of exile from the material forces that are constantly building us up, transforming us and breaking us down, for it is not possible even for a moment to isolate the body from an imagined incorporeal soul. According to brain researcher Antonio Damasio, believing this was Descartes' great error, a mistake that he considers has had a major negative impact on the discussion on consciousness, the brain and the body ever since the 17th century. It leads us astray, claims Damasio, to regard—with the great philosopher—thought as if it were something entirely immaterial, without a dimension in space, and without any connection to the entirely material body, and it is also wrong to regard thought as "the basis of human existence." First we exist, then we think, claims Damasio.

Death and the insight into our mortality that is a characteristic of our species is one of the powerful examples, not only of this simple fact, but also of the cultural influence of remorseless physiological processes. "When the gods created mankind, they instituted death as the destiny of human beings," as it says in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The long history of funeral customs can serve as an example of this. All human beings dispose of their dead; they have always done this and will presumably always continue to do it if they continue to be human beings. Human beings but no other beings. Not chimpanzees nor dwarf chimpanzees, although they seem to be closely related to us. Nor elephants, despite the fact that from their often moving behaviour they seem capable of feelings which might be thought to lead them to do this.

It is easy to imagine a number of practical reasons for disposing of dead members of one's own species, such as the fear of the spread of disease from rotting corpses or the threat of predators or scavengers. For members of our own species, however, this has never been merely a practical arrangement. Always—or almost always—it is has also been a ritual act, when human beings in circumstances far removed from those obviated by necessity, have bidden farewell to those who could no longer be reached by a final greeting of this kind. Involved in this are processions and staged lamentation, prayers, sermons, food and drink, and even slaves and wives thrown down into graves together with the dead.

If funerals are counted as a part of human culture, then it seems clear at the same time that they have their basis in nature, in an early evolutionary event that provided for the opportunity of reflecting on our own predicament, and which meant that we acquired the custom of celebrating in a particular way the passage out of this life. Now it is not necessarily the case that this existentially reflexive ability is in all its parts inevitable for our continuance as a species, just because its basis is to be found in nature. From an evolutionary perspective it is not difficult see what advantages prehistoric humans might derive from their big brains in the struggle with relatively speaking more stupid predators. It is, therefore, reasonable to regard the slow growth of the brain and the associated modification of the species as a favourable adaptation to incessant challenges, both from other species and micro-organisms, and from other constantly changing circumstances.

Nor has the fact that the funeral culture has its basis in nature prevented the customs themselves from varying in time and place. This is also the case with other aspects of our attitudes to death and to dead bodies, just as with most aspects of human culture. It is fortunate for the cultural researchers, as in this way they have the opportunity of using material remains and other evidence for such variations in order to trace periods when humans changed course in their dealings with each other.

FUNERAL PRACTICES are just one of many examples of the culture-engendering power of death, and death in its turn is just one example of the natural circumstances of existence that seem to engender culture in those species that have proved capable of culture. Regarded in this way culture is an aspect of nature and not a supplement to it, something that the humanities, special as they are, must build into their principles. If human beings were to be cultural beings with free will, then this would mean that at a point in their development before they had yet become cultural, they took a decision to do this: "From now on we sad, acultural beings are going to be cultural." The idea is as silly as the idea that at the dawn of time hominids decided to stand on their hind legs and shed their fur because they realised the advantages of doing so (carrying things in their hands and avoiding fleas), or that Cro-Magnon Man decided to become a being able to create symbols before he set out to create his incomparable cave paintings (unless it was some earlier variant of the hominids who did this through a decision to discover how to make cutting tools from suitable rocks.)

The line of argument has returned to the same basic assertion that I made above, namely that we can never free ourselves from the body, nature, biology or whatever one wishes to call those parts of us that we, in our thinking, tend to differentiate from the will, consciousness, culture. One can with some justice say that in this way I am adopting a determinist attitude to the origins of culture. I am not alone in this, even if humanists seldom do it, while the majority of those biologists who have been interested in human culture usually draw the same kind of conclusions. It is nature that has made human beings into cultural beings, and these cultural beings are themselves a part of nature. Which is why culture in its entirety is not a social construction, even if such constructions are an obvious part of social life everywhere. How could it be otherwise? "Cultural" anthropologist Marshall Sahlins once said that mind, "is an extension of evolution by other means." 14 That Sahlins later came to claim the relative freedom of culture from pre-cultural attributes does not have to be a contradiction, even if it might be.

CULTURE COMES FROM nature and remains a part of nature, just as the newborn child remains a human being outside the womb. Sometimes it is slow, sometimes quick—both with the former and the latter. About 40,000 years ago a long period of rapid cultural change began, rapid in comparison with the 40,000 years before this, when nothing special had happened although human beings from an anatomical perspective had been the same the whole time.

Suddenly—suddenly in an evolutionary perspective—an entire series of related innovations came about, such as more developed collections of tools, knives with sharp edges, more varied materials for producing tools, such as stone, bone, ivory, horn, and the increasingly long-distant transport of raw materials in order to produce tools, increasingly advanced "protective dwellings," art and ornamentation, including grave rituals and other symbolic acts.
It should at the same time be stressed that the almost explosive cultural change now beginning had as its prerequisite an underlying genetic change, namely the development of homo sapiens , modern Man, although it took this new species a considerable time to emerge from the cocoon of cultural evolution. And further, the fact that culture has its origins in and is based in nature does not mean that it is merely a passive response to nature. Even the fact that human beings over the past 40,000 years have—with cultural means—met both new challenges and old and timelessly exacting problems is one aspect of the matter. Just as natural processes generally affect each other, culture has also throughout all of human history influenced the phenomena which do not belong to culture itself, things that in this context one can summarise with the word nature.

The new thing about the new kind of humans was that an altered or increased so-called selection pressure was countered by cultural innovations instead of producing genetically marked species change, in accordance with the evolutionary logic that previously to a large degree had characterised the hominids and still characterises the rest of the animal world. From the first primitive human beings in the Rift Valley of central Africa to the Neanderthals and homo sapiens, the adaptation to new environments and new circumstances was accompanied by a growth in the size of the brain, which has since not been the case, as the representatives of the species after this have succeeded in meeting new challenges with cultural rather than genetic means. The as much as 35,000 year-old cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain are the most pregnant and, in their way, most impressive proofs of the cultural potential of Palaeolithic man.

Culture (= the cultural part of nature) and nature (= the non-cultural part of nature) therefore influence each other. All this cross-influence is difficult to visualise, but at the same time easy to find examples of. The influence of human beings on the environment and the environment's influence in return provides an excellent illustration, in so far as human beings on the basis of their opportunities and limitations have modified their environment already by heating their dwellings and cooking their food, chopping down the forest or draining wetlands, whereupon the modified nature has enforced new adaptations in the culturally innovative humans. Another kind of example is the contribution by inventive human beings to the extermination of different animal species. With the aid of bow and arrow they contributed to the hunting to extinction of mammoths, aurochs, lemurs, elephant birds and other large prey—surely against their own wishes and parallel with other circumstances acting in the same direction, such as climate change. Intentional deforestation with the aim of acquiring timber and establishing agriculture has also caused exterminations, for example of goats and rabbits. The overfishing of cod as a result of over-efficient fishing gear is a recent example from our own time, just like the queues of cars in today's cities.

TO SAY THAT human beings influence nature is the same as saying that they changed their world, and saying that they changed their world is the same saying that they have a history. This influence is necessary, because human beings do not only have a propensity for culture but are also forced to act as cultural beings. The ability and the compulsion for culture therefore means that human beings sentence themselves to constant cultural change with consequences that can be both foreseen and unforeseen, desirable and undesirable.

It also shows that the humanities and natural sciences have everything to gain by breaking their isolation from each other, even if as a result they can have no reason to cease existing as separate research areas. Researchers within different areas have to stop swearing allegiance to one or other perspective, indeed have to stop believing that science is a question of choosing one perspective, and then ceasing to listen to the other side. For this reason they have to stop protecting themselves with the help of self-confirming arrangements in order to strengthen their faith in their own view, and instead seek out those researchers they have most and not least to fear from. What we need is for this reason not a general interdisciplinary science which commits us to nothing. We merely need inquisitive searchers who ask open questions and seek the answers where these are to be found with the methods required, irrespective of whether this leads them across the boundaries of other research fields or now and then gives them good reason to stay put within the boundaries of their own discipline.


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