Culture's Roots: Biological or Societal?

The nature versus nurture debate continues to rage in the social sciences. When applied to human culture, proponents of the “nature” side of the debate maintain that human genetics creates cultural forms common to people everywhere. Genetic mutations and anomalies, then, give rise to the behavioral and cultural differences encountered across and among human groups. These differences potentially include language, food and clothing preferences, and sexual attitudes, to name just a few. Proponents of the “nurture” side of the debate maintain that humans are a tabula rasa (French for “blank slate”) upon which everything is learned, including cultural norms. This fundamental debate has given social scientists and others insights into human nature and culture, but no solid conclusions.

More recently, social learning theorists and sociobiologists have added their expertise and opinions to the debate. Social learning theorists hold that humans learn social behaviors within social contexts. That is, behavior is not genetically driven but socially learned. On the other hand, sociobiologists argue that, because specific behaviors like aggression are common among all human groups, a natural selection must exist for these behaviors similar to that for bodily traits like height. Sociobiologists also hold that people whose “selected” behaviors lead to successful social adaptation more likely reproduce and survive. One generation can genetically transmit successful behavioral characteristics to the next generation.

Today, sociologists generally endorse social learning theory to explain the emergence of culture. That is, they believe that specific behaviors result from social factors that activate physiological predispositions, rather than from heredity and instincts, which are biologically fixed patterns of behavior. Because humans are social beings, they learn their behaviors (and beliefs, attitudes, preferences, and the like) within a particular culture. Sociologists find evidence for this social learning position when studying cultural universals, or features common to all cultures. Although most societies do share some common elements, sociologists have failed to identify a universal human nature that should theoretically produce identical cultures everywhere. Among other things, language, preference for certain types of food, division of labor, methods of socialization, rules of governance, and a system of religion represent typical cultural features across societies. Yet all these are general rather than specific features of culture. For example, all people consume food of one type or another. But some groups eat insects, while others do not. What one culture accepts as “normal” may vary considerably from what another culture accepts.