Human Nature and Cultural Relativism

Cultural conditioning can override human nature

Posted Jan 24, 2012

In the early 1970s, renowned anthropologist Clifford Geertz published his most influential book, The Interpretation of Cultures. The book was widely read throughout the social sciences and humanities, and influenced intellectual agendas in these realms for decades. One of the powerful arguments for which the book is known is Geertz' attack on the idea of human nature. Geertz points out that human beings have evolved to be dependent upon culture to help them adapt to different environments. This flexibility allows human beings to exist on almost every corner of the planet, but it also implies that humans have had to give up instinctual, "wired-in" behavior patterns. We are able to learn many different ways of obtaining food because we don't have any food obtaining instincts of the sort that guide other species. Therefore, says Geertz, there really are no basic, "natural," human behaviors. There is no human nature.

One implication of this line of thought is a strong version of cultural relativism, the idea that knowledge and morals are not absolute, but only relative to particular cultural contexts. Geertz intended his argument as a strong defense of the traditional anthropological tenet that all cultures are equally worthy of respect, but many of his readers took this a step further. It became widely accepted that because there is no universal human nature, there can be no universal standards for truth or morality. These notions can only exist locally, and not globally. In some versions, for example, it was asserted that we can no longer say "X is true." Rather we must say "X is true in this particular culture (but maybe not in another culture)."

I'm not a cultural relativist in this latter sense. There are plenty of facts that are true world-wide. But I also agree with Clifford Geertz that culture is a very strong determinant of human action. In fact, I think he and the strong cultural relativists who followed him got off track in part because they underestimate the power of culture in determining what people do. Contemporary neuroscientific research has shown that significant aspects of human behavior are in fact wired into our make-up. We do have instincts, plenty of them. But human communities also have powerful ways of promoting preferred behaviors, of making people behave in certain sorts of ways. These technologies of cultural learning are in fact so powerful that they can overwhelm humans' natural tendencies.

One such technology, one that I have written about in my book Caught in Play, is forms of ritual and play that infuse certain ideas and practices with very strong emotions. Human beings are quite capable of ecstatic emotional states, emotions that are so powerful that they provoke the sense of a presence that comes from beyond the everyday world. This is what happens when people become possessed by spirits, or are overwhelmed by the powerful currents in a crowd. Or, to return to the example I have focused on, it happens when the powerful and stimulating feelings of entertainment come to be associated with particular persons or products or ideas.

Thus, for example, we develop the faith that the people in entertainment-celebrities-are special sorts of beings, fascinating creatures whose every action is worthy of our attention. It's our culture of entertainment that creates this feeling, not some universal part of human nature. But it's our universal human nature that makes it so easy for our cultures to shape us in ways over which we have little control.

For more information, please visit Peter G. Stromberg's website