People often speak of culture in the plural (“cultures”) because they believe that there are many different cultures in the world. At one level, this is of course true; the American culture is different from the Chinese culture, both of which are different from the Egyptian culture, and so on. However, all the cultural differences are on the surface; deep down, at the most fundamental level, all human cultures are essentially the same.
But the grave error of traditional sociologists and others under the influence of the Standard Social Science Model (a term attributable to the co-founders of evolutionary psychology, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby) is to believe that human behavior is infinitely malleable, capable of being molded and shaped limitlessly in any way by cultural practices and socialization. Available evidence shows that this view is false. Human behavior, while malleable, is not infinitely malleable by culture, because culture is not infinitely variable. In fact, despite all the surface and minor differences, evolutionary psychologists have shown that all human cultures are essentially the same.
An oldie but a goodie, this article reminds us of a fact: human behavior is a response to the human environment. Sensible behaviors survive; insane or delusional ones do not. Similarly, cultures are collected knowledge for intergenerational transmission that reflect the sensible behaviors that have survived. In other words, culture arises from adaptation, is encoded into biology, and that knowledge is kept together by culture.
In 1923, Margaret Mead (1901-1978), one of the most celebrated anthropologists of all time, was an anthropology graduate student of Franz Boas (1858-1942) at Columbia University. Boas was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, and was therefore politically and personally motivated to prove wrong the Nazi policy of eugenics. While this is an admirable goal in and of itself, Boas unfortunately chose the wrong tactics to achieve it. He wanted to show that biology had nothing to do with how humans behave, and that environment — culture and socialization — determines human behavior completely. He was a strong proponent of cultural determinism.
Mead knew that in the United States and the rest of the Western world, boys were sexually aggressive and actively pursued girls, while girls were sexually coy and waited to be asked out on dates by boys. “How different are things in Samoa? How are Samoan boys and girls when it comes to sex?” Mead asked her two young female informants, Fa’apua’a Fa’amu and Fofoa Poumele.
Fa’apua’a and Fofoa, just like young women everywhere, were quite embarrassed to talk about sex to a total stranger. So they decided to make a big joke about it out of sheer embarrassment. They told Mead the opposite of how things were in Samoa. They told her that boys were quite shy, and girls actively pursued boys sexually. It was a hoax, but in the minds of Fa’apua’a and Fofoa, the story that they were telling Mead was so outrageous and so obviously untrue that they couldn’t believe that anyone in her right mind would believe them.
Except that Mead did, for this was exactly the type of “evidence” that Boas had sent her to Samoa to gather.
Cultural determinism presumes a more flattering but unfounded principle: that we choose our culture semi-arbitrarily.
It’s a variation of pandering to the Crowd. Tell them their God-like brains, and thus their egos, make decisions and that it has nothing to do with their animal-like bodies, and they like you. Why? Because you told them they are in control.
In reality, free will is an illusion and we are our biology. First, we do what we are capable of understanding. Second, we have inherent tendencies sculpted over time by natural selection and passed on as culture that emerge in our personalities. Finally, we are regulated by our hormone levels, which are biological. We are biology.
Psychologists have conducted a study of more than 100 people and claim to have identified an optimism gene.
“We’ve shown for the first time that a genetic variation is linked with a tendency to look on the bright side of life,” says Elaine Fox of the University of Essex. “This is a key mechanism underlying resilience to general life stress.”
The fates of our unfortunate Crusoes are determined not, then, by their characters but by the genetic determinants on their characters.
I choose to believe the result, though, because it confirms what I suspected: we are the victims of our own brains. Actually, I should recast that sentence. Rather than choosing to believe this study because it confirms what I already suspected, I was genetically doomed to believe it because it confirms what I am genetically doomed to believe about the setup of the universe.
I once imagined that optimism was a matter of willpower.
It’s only human pretense that makes us think character and willpower are separate from genetics. Our genes determine our abilities. We can choose to accelerate those abilities, like a person with musical talent practicing and so becoming a virtuoso, but we cannot create them out of thin air.
In the same way, civilizations are created by the branching of genes. Collaborating in the cold requires an awareness of morality; of 100 communities, one developed the requisite genes and survived, dominating the others. Surviving in cities requires a defensive awareness of self; those who have it thrive. And so on.
That offends our conception of ourselves as “in control” but as any scientist will tell you, we’re in control of very little. We’re nerve impulses as conditioned by evolution.
The argument that fairy tales and the media link physical beauty to positive attributes does not explain why children as young as 14 hours old gaze at adults judged to have attractive female faces longer than those who have unattractive faces.
To label a mental or perceptual mechanism as shaped by selection process, it is imperative to show that the mechanism is operative across diverse ethnic and cultural groups of humans. The effect of WHR (waist-to-hip ratio, which defines the female form) on female attractiveness has now been reported for almost 20 ethnic and culture groups: USA (White, Black, and Latino), England, Germany, Holland, Poland, Greece, Australia, Kenya (Africa), Guinea-Bissau (Africa), Uganda (Africa), Azore Island, Shiwiar tribe of East Ecuador, Indonesia, Hong Kong (China), India (Sugali and Yanadi tribes), Chile (South America), and Jamaica. Some researchers have suggested that the reported influence of WHR on female attractiveness cross-culturally is due to exposure to Western media. In other words, people in non-Western societies copy Western ideals when defining their own ideals of feminine beauty. The speculation that people in non-Western societies imitate Western ideals of beauty does not explain why a relationship between WHR and attractiveness exists in Western societies and why Asian and African societies, which reportedly associate fatness with attractiveness, nevertheless attend to and are influenced by WHR.
As evident in Figure 4, all groups have practically identical ratings for all attributes in spite of extremely diverse cultural backgrounds; men from Guinea-Bissau (one of the poorest countries, with practically no exposure to Western media), Azore Island (which has government-controlled, commercial-free television), Indonesia, and U.S. (African-American and Caucasian) rate figures as less attractive, less healthy, older, and less desirable for marriage as WHR increases (Singh, 2004; Singh & Luis, 1995). Furthermore, attractiveness, healthiness, and youthfulness covary in identical manners as a function of WHR for all groups. Such systematic convergence of perceived attractiveness, healthiness, and youthfulness based solely on WHR cannot be attributed to media exposure.
There are universal responses to our environment that are ideal, including feminine beauty, intelligence, and symmetry.
And while we can change ourselves, that can go either forward (us getting more competent, more moral, healthier and more beautiful) or degenerate:
Our brains—or worse, children’s brains—could be rewired from the fast pace of modern social networking sites, TV shows, and video games, says Oxford University neuroscientist Susan Greenfield. The researcher said this week that kids seem to have more trouble understanding each other (in real life, that is) and focusing in school, and that it could be due to the proliferation of short, bite-sized clips of information in the online world that is causing their brains to physically change.
“My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment,” she told the Daily Mail in an interview this week. “It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations.”
Natural selection is determined by how we survive.
If we survive by prostituting ourselves, only those naturally inclined to whore will survive.
When people are busy shattering their attention spans with short feedback loop devices, they will eventually set a social standard of short communication.
That social standard will determine who succeeds in the Social Darwinism enacted by our society.
That will determine who breeds and thus, what traits prevail.
Future humans may be short, squat and well-adapted to play video games, but unable to develop philosophy.