When You Don't Have a Clue, Call It "Culture"

A new psychology examines humans and other species on a common playing field.

Posted Jul 22, 2020

Humans are a product of the same process of evolution by natural selection as other species. This means that scientists must use the same terms to explain our actions as we use for other species.

Yet, social scientists use very different explanations for humans than for other primates. We are falsely segregated in a realm of cognition, and culture, when all vertebrates acquire knowledge from other members of their species, most solve problems, and some are even self-aware.

In my new book, Evolution in the Here and Now, I question the use of cultural explanations in the social sciences as illegitimate special pleading for our own species with the aim of separating us from the rest of nature.

One way to test the word “culture” in scientific explanations is to examine instances that one apologist, Alex Mesoudi,1 sees as clear cases of culture in action.

Surefire Examples of “Culture” Are Damp Squibs

The first is the finding that Swedish immigrants in the US are higher in civic responsibility (as assessed in terms of voting, reading newspapers, and so forth) than Italian immigrants are, mirroring the responses of people in their countries of origin.

Mesoudi assumes that this finding bolsters our confidence in cultural explanation. Yet, there is a problem. Civic engagement is probably influenced by a host of childhood experiences from corporal punishment that would reduce civic engagement, to experiences of economic redistribution that would increase it, not to mention socioeconomic status.

We know little about what makes a good citizen but saying there is a culture of civic engagement is mere hand-waving.

Mesoudi's other examples are not any stronger. We find that people in some societies make more generous offers than those in others according to results from a money-splitting experiment known as the Ultimatum Game. We do not really know why generosity varies but it could reflect experiences in deal-making and cooperative endeavors. For example, the Lamilera people, who conduct cooperative whale hunts, are highly generous. They may be rewarded for generosity in the sharing of meat.

Mesoudi's third example relates to a greater tendency for people from East Asian countries to attribute a person's actions to their situation whereas those of European ancestry see the individual themselves as being more responsible.

This example is also flawed. After all, people from different parts of the globe vary slightly in personality, possibly due to random genetic variation (or drift).2 Their brains are also affected by different educational experiences, such as writing in pictograms versus in script.3

We know that learning to read affects brain function in diverse ways. Perhaps experience in producing pictograms enhances a child's capacity to process situations better.

Moreover, East Asian Countries expose people to living in densely populated cities. This may have the effect of increasing stress hormones and reducing confrontation, such as being quick to blame another individual when something goes wrong.

So each of the killer examples of culture is a lead balloon. When scholars really do not understand some phenomenon, they throw in the scientific towel and call it culture.

None of this is to deny that people do learn civic engagement, explanatory styles, or generosity, from the people around them. What is so terrible about calling this “culture?”

Why “Social Learning” Is Preferable

From a scientific perspective, the term “culture” has much anthropocentric baggage. In a world more aware of animal cognition, terms such as “animal culture” are being used but this does not cure the problem.

Since all vertebrates are capable of social learning, this is a more neutral term that references objective phenomena that scientists can study.

Culture is often used in a circular way. For example, a culture of violence is used to explain violent behavior. If the cause is the effect, scientific explanation is moot because we cannot draw valid conclusions of the form, “A causes B.”

Moreover, cultural explanations foster Platonic mysticism summoning some kind of immaterial essence that uniquely animates human activities in quasi-spiritual, and holistic, ways. This encourages subjectivity. However, natural science calls for objective data. This implies a level playing field for humans and other species.

Animal Cognition Forces Us to Avoid Human-Centered Terms

We can no longer segregate ourselves from other species as cultural determinists are fond of doing. Researchers find much evidence of continuity in cognitive capacity between humans and other species.

Even small-brained animals, like magpies, are self-aware. Animals as diverse as chimpanzees, and Clark's nutcrackers top human abilities in spatial memory. Several primates demonstrate artistic sensibility as painters. Killer whales use intelligent plans and coordinated action to draw seals off ice floes.

We are not alone in the realm of complex mental activity. We can no longer conduct the social sciences as though we were separate from the rest of the natural world that produced us all.


1. Mesoudi, A. (2011). Cultural evolution: How Darwinian theory can explain human culture and synthesize the social sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2. Allik, J., & McCrae, R. R. (2004). Toward a geography of personality traits. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35, 13-28.

3. Henrich, J. (2015). The secret of our success: How culture is driving human evolution domesticating our species and making us smarter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.