Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 195-203 ( 13 May )
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Essay Review

The Possible Origin of Culture
Andy Lock, Professor of Psychology at Massey University, New Zealand.

Review of The Evolution of Culture: An Interdisciplinary View
Edited by Robin Dunbar, Chris Knight and Camilla Power
Edinburgh University Press, 1999 Pp. xii + 257

There are four great systems whereby that phenomenon called 'life' variously
sustains itself by moving information around in time. Three of these, the
genetic system, the immune system, and the various nervous systems that support
learning, are miracles of individual biology. Our understanding of each of
these is conceptually united and underpinned by the Darwinian explication of
'selection'. Natural selection explains how a profusion of genotypes is
winnowed down to a set of 'adapted' individuals. Clonal selection theory
explains how a profusion of lymphocytes are selected by their fit to antigens.
And as Skinner (1953: 430) has pointed out 'In certain respects [learning]
resembles the natural selection of evolutionary theory. Just as genetic
characteristics which arise as mutations are selected or discarded by their
consequences, so novel forms of behavior are selected or discarded through

The fourth great system - culture - has never been satisfactorily fitted into
this framework. The social systems of sub-human animals have proved to be
explainable within an evolutionary framework, but human culture is more
elusive. Cultural behaviour has a moral component rooted in self-awareness that
the other systems do not display. It is fundamental to the maintenance of
cultures that the individuals who make them up must have some awareness of
their social standing with respect to age, sex, hierarchies of social standing,
etc, for 'if [they] were not aware of [their] roles they would not be in a
position to appraise their own conduct in terms of traditional values and
social sanctions' (Hallowell, 1971: 83); they would not be able to provide an
acceptable account of their actions when called to do so upon transgressing
'custom' - accounts which draw on the local 'social constructs' of the group;
and without such an awareness, human groups would be, if they could even exist
under such conditions, little more than a collection of mindless sociopaths.
Culture has thus, within the social sciences, come to be felt of as something
'beyond biology', with socio-biological Darwinism being reacted to as an
ideological construct rather than an applicable scientific framework.

The aim of the present volume is to counter this rejection by asking
evolutionary questions about culture: 'What is a 'social construct'? Under what
selection pressures did such morally compulsive intangibles become invented,
believed in and held up for respect?' (p. 5). It is divided into three
sections: the evolution of society; the evolution of art and religion; the
evolution of language. The chapters are brief at around 20 pages each (bar
one). They are packed with information, but generally very well written and
thus their arguments are all accessible. And at the same time, fascinating.

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