Is the Human Nature/Culture War Ever Going to End?

Evolutionary and cultural psychologists have already shed enough blood

Posted Sep 22, 2012

Last week, Science reviewed my book Games Primates Play. I am, of course, pleased and honored that the most prestigious scientific journal in the world chose to devote one and a half of its precious pages to a review of my book. I am also puzzled, however, by their choice of the person to write the review. The book review is signed by Nick Enfield, a professor of ethnolinguistics at Radboud University, in The Netherlands. His expertise is in cultural and ethnic variation in human languages. Mr. Enfield’s view of human behavior is probably influenced by his field of expertise the way my views are influenced by my expertise in evolution and primate behavior. Which means that we are in two opposite camps of an intellectual war that has been going on for over 50 years. I am puzzled that by choosing a book reviewer whose extreme views are diametrically opposed to mine, Science missed an opportunity to prove that conciliation between the two camps is possible, that enough intellectual blood has been shed, and that this war is no longer worth fighting.

Let me explain. The central theme of my book is that many aspects of our behavior in social relationships reflect human nature. For example, I discuss emotions such as fear of strangers, envy for competitors, and love for our romantic partners; I also discuss the use of nepotistic behavior to help children and other family members in business and politics; our concern for social status and the existence of dominance hierarchies in the workplace; how we make decisions to form or maintain cooperative partnerships with other individuals; and how we select business or romantic partners according to the “laws of the market.” By arguing that our human nature is reflected in the “games” we play in our relationships, I mean that certain aspects of these relationships seem common to most human beings, that some of our tendencies to play these games are, at least in part, genetically determined and hard-wired in our brains, that the behavior of most people in relationships can be statistically predicted with the theoretical models developed by evolutionary biologists and behavioral economists, and finally that these aspects of human behavior probably have a long evolutionary history and we can see many parallels in primate species closely-related to us, or in some cases, even distantly related animals such as fish and birds (if our anatomy shows evidence of an “inner fish”, as paleontologist Neil Shubin nicely demonstrated in his bestselling book, our behavior too, shows some evidence of our inner fish, reptile, bird, mammal, and most definitely of our inner primate).

Obviously there is huge inter-individual variation in human social behavior. Much of this variation has a biological origin, because many of us carry different versions of the same genes, and these genetic differences translate into differences in the way our brains work and how we behave (for example, in terms of our emotional reactions, or our personalities). Variation is even greater for languages, moral and religious systems, cultural traditions, and any other aspects of our behavior that are acquired through learning from the families or societies in which we live. Inter-individual variation – whether biological or environmental – is present in every living organism on this planet: viruses, bacteria, plants, and animals. For example, there are many different varieties of apples and different varieties of oranges, and it may be impossible to find two apples or two oranges that are absolutely identical to one another. Yet, apples are still apples, and oranges are still oranges. In other words, despite all the variation, we recognize that all individual apples are sufficiently similar to one another and sufficiently different from all the oranges, for these to be classified as different species.

Similar to apples and to oranges, all human beings share some anatomical and genetic characteristics, which set us apart from any other animal species. Do all human beings also share some behavioral characteristics that set us apart from any other animal species? Many evolutionary psychologists and biologists would answer yes and call these shared behavioral characteristics “human nature”. Instead, many cultural anthropologists, psychologists, or linguists - whose work is focused on analyzing cultural and ethnic differences in the way people behave, think, or communicate – deny that human nature exists.

The proponents of human nature believe that if an anthropologist from Mars spent some time observing our behavior he or she would be able to classify all human beings as belonging to a single species, even without knowing anything about anatomy or genetics. Those who deny the existence of human nature, instead, believe that the observer from Mars would classify different groups of people as different species: some humans are apples and others are oranges. These two camps of people have been at war for over 50 years, since the early 1960s, when evolution-minded behavioral biologists started making generalizations about behavioral traits that appeared to be universal, and cultural social scientists started raising objections by pointing to this or that small tribe on a remote island of the Pacific Ocean, in which the supposedly universal traits are absent, or people behave in exactly the opposite way to Westerners.

More than 50 years later, here we go again. I write a book with some generalizations about human nature and Mr. Enfield responds that “the ethnographic record has shown that such generalizations across the human species are not possible.” Haven’t we learned anything in these 50 years of controversy? Actually, we have. We now know that the notion of human nature is perfectly compatible with the existence of significant inter-individual and cultural variation in behavior. Biological influences on behavior are never deterministic; one may have a biological tendency to behave in a certain way but in some circumstances the tendency is suppressed or expressed in a different way due to the environment. Thus statements about human nature are never deterministic but probabilistic: they predict what the majority of individuals who do in a situation or describe what the average is. They allow for plenty of variation and exceptions to the rules. Thus, the bizarre behavior of a small tribe in the middle of the Amazon may not necessarily represent evidence against the existence of human nature. Another thing we have learned in the past 50 years is that some aspects of human behavior are relatively invariant and tend to be exhibited by all individuals in all circumstances, while others are more malleable and more likely to vary in groups or populations that live in different parts of the world and until recently, had little or no opportunity to communicate with one another. Thus, the concept of human nature does not necessarily encompass all aspects of human behavior, but mainly refers to those that show less environmental variation and for which there is already some evidence that they are genetically determined and hard-wired in our brains.

Despite all these new insights, however, the war between the human nature and the human culture camps continues. The problem is that despite the fact that universalities and peculiarities of human behavior co-exist side by side, the people who study behavior tend to specialize in one or the other, but rarely in both. Some psychologists specialize in the study of normative aspects of behavior and cognition while others focus on inter-individual variation, the same way some linguists focus on structural and functional properties of language that are common across all cultures, while others specialize in cultural variation. Given how egocentric and competitive human beings are (yes, this is a statement about human nature), the intellectuals in each camp think that their work is more important than the others’, complain that their rivals ignore or dismiss their findings, and feel threatened that their rivals might try to take over their discipline. If ideas about human nature become too popular, maybe universities will no longer hire cultural anthropologists or they will be viewed as second-class citizens in the academic community. A scary thought. And so the war continues: I write a book about human nature and Mr. Enfield comes along, criticizing me for “dismissing the idea that human diversity is important” and “failing to engage with cultural diversity.” 

I think we would all agree that a comprehensive investigation of all aspects of human behavior, from how we sneeze and blow our noses to our moral and religious beliefs would have to include a discussion of both the commonalities across human beings and the inter-individual and cultural variation. A 10,000-page volume would not be sufficient to cover the full range of the human experience. I wrote a much shorter book, instead, in which I chose to focus on some aspects of human behavior and not others. But I did not dismiss other people’s work or threaten to take over their academic discipline. I did not engage with cultural diversity in human behavior simply because this is not what my book is about. Games Primates Play is focused on normative aspects of human social behavior and their likely evolutionary history. If my focus had been on inter-individual variation in behavior and the role of culture, I would have written a very different book, selecting topics, examples, and anecdotes that resonate better with a readership of cultural anthropologists and ethnolinguists.

Enfield, N. J. Diversity Disregarded. Science, 337: 1295-1296, 2012.

Maestripieri, D. Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

Shubin, N. Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. New York: Pantheon, 2008.

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