At issue here is the idea that “biology” is slow and ponderous, glacial, even geological, in its rate of change, while culture is quick and snappy and makes rapid adjustment. Connected to this is a subtly different but very important idea: Culture actually makes sensible adjustments to compensate for changes in the biological realm.
Surely, it is true that culture can change more quickly than biology, and surely it is true that culture can make adjustments for biological effects or alterations. Indeed, the very essence of humanity is culture’s effects on human capacities. We tropical ex-monkeys live in temperate, subarctic, and arctic environments because of clothing and fire, for instance. Our diets are diverse and rich because of our technology. Until the invention of agriculture (a bad idea all around) humans in most places in the world and at most points in history probably spent very little time in the direct acquisition of food because our technology (which is a cultural thing) is so wicked cool.
So, what am I complaining about with this falsehood?
Well, it is pretty simple. Despite the importance of culture, the adaptability of culture and its quickness are highly overrated. We tend to overestimate the actual utility of the cultural adaptation … how much culture actually is adjusted to optimize a solution. This is something many people believe in but I see much evidence that culture is overrated in this area. The other is the speed at which culture changes things. Between the two, we see culture capable of doing some pretty dumb-ass things, or simply failing to do the obvious.
V. Gordon Childe noted this in one of his many treatises (such as “Man Makes Himself,”1 on culture. Childe was Australian born, and he returned to Australia for a dose of euthanasia, but in between he worked on Europe and lived in Britain. He noted that the gentry of Australia were accustom to wearing light linen suits during June, July and August and dark woolen suits in December, January and February, because this was the European/British fashion cycle. Never mind that the seasons were reversed. We evolved fur to keep us warm, then we lost the fur and replaced it with clothing, then we got stoopid.
Our modern Western diet is a construct of culture, and it also may be the single largest cause of death for most Western people. The diet could be culturally adjusted to not result in so much cardiovascular disease and cancer,2 but culture is incapable, it seems, of overriding the biology of food related desires. This should not be a big problem. Our biology demands that we eat, and our culture complies and cooperates in that effort, but the culture part is screwing it up.
One of the basic problems is that cultural practices rarely result from scientific thinking. Obviously. We inherit or receive from somewhere, or sometimes just make up, our responses to the environment (biological and cultural) and then we engage in those responses, often adjusting them stylistically but not functionally.
One day, up at my wife’s family cabin, I helped my father-in-law put a row boat, upside down, on a set of blocks late in the fall. When we were done, he said: “I’m not sure why we do this. My father did this, and his father before him probably did it. So I do it. I’m afraid to not do it because there may be a reason for doing this.”
And there probably was. But it is also possible that the reason is no longer extant or has changed in its importance. Great great grand daddy Knute’s boat was probably a wooden sea-faring vessel of some kind (I’m imagining Vikings) while the boat we blocked-up was an aluminum fishing boat used in fresh water. I can imagine the requirements for winterizing would be quite different.
While we’re still up at the cabin, I’ll give you another example of how culture often works. When we leave a cabin for the week or longer, we do certain things. We put all the shades down tight. Each window has a shade that totally cover it, and each is closed before leaving. We turn off the water supply. Most interestingly, certain things are unplugged and certain things are not unplugged. Not unplugged: All lamps, any chargers that happen to be stuck in the wall somewhere, clock radios, microwave oven, toaster oven. Unplugged religiously: The electric coffee pot, the coffee grinder, the electric cappuccino maker and the doohickey that makes ‘steamed milk’ (a recent rather decadent but very nice addition to the cabin kitchen).
Why are the coffee pot, the cappuccino maker and the milk doohickey unplugged? All three have clear indicators showing if they are on or off. These three items and the grinder do not draw electricity when not in use, though the microwave and some of the chargers do. None of these items poses a threat of any kind plugged in while the crappy old clock radio in one of the bedrooms does (old clock radios are a common cause of house fires).
The reason, I believe, is that they all have to do with coffee, so they are classified, culturally, as “electrically ambiguous.” This is because the original cabin coffee pot is a percolator. Percolator (at least the older plug-in types) do not show you that they are on or off with a light. In fact, the only way to turn them off is to unplug them. This ambiguity earned the old perc pots a regular inspection by anyone passing through the kitchen to see if they were plugged in. Then, if so, the plug would be pulled out of the wall if no one was at the moment drinking coffee and no coffee was brewing. In anthropology we might classify this as a fetish.
That sensible behavior evolved into a cultural practice of unplugging anything that has to do with coffee. There is not a scientific rationale for unplugging things, but rather, a cultural practice with a long forgotten and largely irrelevant grain of sense.
As far as the window shades and pump go, we have a mixture of sense and non-sense. We close the cabin shades for a few days at a time but no one shuts the shades of their home when they leave for the cabin, even for an extended period. Having a couple of shades open would make sense, because sunlight kills mildew spores. That mildew effect one gets in a cabin is in part because sunlight is not allowed in most of the time! I don’t know why we close the shades, but I do know that I don’t care about the shades, my wife’s parents care somewhat about the shades and grandma’s generation goes nuts if the shades are not closed. So, I assume this all can be traced back to some thing that would happen (or not happen) in the old days if you left the shades up.
Well, these cabin idiosyncrasies are interesting but not too broadly applicable except in that they may illustrate how culture seems to function in an illogical way.
One of my favorite examples of culture and biology working at different paces but in a counter intuitive way pertains to the relationship between the age of marriage and the age of first pregnancy. Assuming that biparental care, paternity, kin bonds, and so on are biologically and culturally important, there should be a regular relationship between the age of marriage and first pregnancy. And there is. This can get pretty complicated, and it varies across cultures, but the most common pattern is probably marriage a year or two before first birth. In some cultures, the first birth happens before marriage … those are cultures where infertility is very high. Makes sense. In other cultures marriage is arranged quite young and sexual relationships are not expected to start between the husband and wife for quite some time. In still other cultures, the official marriage and the baby producing sexual relationships are tightly correlated, in others not. And so on.
The fact that many, or maybe most, cultures have a sensible relationship between more or less formal rules of marriage and the patterns of reproduction, child care, kinship, alliance formation between groups, and other important things would lead us to think that a change in one or more of those important variables would cause an adjustment in he marriage practices.
But, what really happens when there is a biological change in the age of marriage may not be as expected. In western societies, the age of menarche (first period, after which a female can become pregnant) has shifted in less than a century from somewhere close to seventeen years of age (or more by some estimates) to somewhere around 12. Holy crap. Nearly one third of the time of a girl’s pre-fecund life has been taken off. Western women (girls) are able to become pregnant in one third less time than they used to, just from the time of their grandparents generation.
Surely one would expect the age of marriage and other cultural features that facilitate sexual maturity, sexual relationships, kin relationships, the economics of starting a household, and so on and so forth to adjust for this biological shift. But it really hasn’t. In fact, the average age of marriage over the same time period has gone up. There is now a decade of fecundity unfettered by kinship in Western humans. And, our society is totally at a loss as to what to do about it. So much for culture’s adaptability and speed!
This lack of rational thought (and the effect of ‘culture’ instead of rational thought) is seen in other ways as well. The fact that we are still debating global warming, the current division of opinions on health care insurance reform, the very existence of Michele Bachmann, are all inexplicable from any rational perspective. Culture may be powerful but culture has not been shown to exactly be sharpest knife in the drawer. I’m just sayin’ …
1I have to tell you a story. In graduate school, everyone had to take a pretty tough Oral Exam, which we all prepared for diligently, and almost all of us passed because of that preparation, and also because we didn’t piss off the faculty too much. Then came along a student, whom I’ll refer to as Eric (because that was his name). Eric didn’t pass his exam outright, and it is generally believed that this was because he pissed off the faculty (and did not know some key things one should know, probably). What really pissed them off was when he was asked about Gordon Childe. Gordon Childe would be the equivalent for archaeology of, say, Thomas Jefferson for someone getting their Phd in American Political Science. You would know who he was and you would have read most of his work, and so on. So Eric was asked about Childe, and he hemmed and hawed and said something non-convincing. Then he was asked to simply name one of his books. Eric said (and I have this from Eric himself), “Well, there was that one book …. the one about masturbation. Oh, right, Man Makes Himself!”
2I am not suggesting here that most cancer is caused (or avoidable) by dietary regime. But some is, apparently. See comments below where I give a thumb suck estimate that 36 percent of the deaths in 2006 may have been linked to diet, in that a better diet may have resulted in death of a different cause or later in life. Essentially, much heart disease and stroke, and some cancer, is caused or exacerbated by diet. But, this could be way way off.
More Falsehoods !!!
This post is one of a series on the topic of falsehoods. The following is a list of falsehoods posts in order:
- The Falsehoods
- “False Pearls before Real Swine”
- Falsehood: A baby is not the biological offspring of its adoptive mother
- Falsehoods: Has evolution stopped for humans?
- Natural Selection is Survival Of the Fittest (A Falsehood)
- Falsehood: Nature maintains balance.
- Is it a Falsehood that Humans Evolve from Apes?
- The poor and the dark skinned have more babies than the rich and the light skinned
- Acting for the survival of the species (a falsehood)
- Culture Overrides Biology (Another falsehood)