Satoshi Kanazawa

The Scientific Fundamentalist

There is only one human culture

All cultures are more or less the same

Posted May 11, 2008

People often speak of culture in the plural (“cultures”) because they believe that there are many different cultures in the world. At one level, this is of course true; the American culture is different from the Chinese culture, both of which are different from the Egyptian culture, and so on. However, all the cultural differences are on the surface; deep down, at the most fundamental level, all human cultures are essentially the same.

Yes, culture and socialization do matter for human behavior, to a certain extent. But the grave error of traditional sociologists and others under the influence of the Standard Social Science Model (a term attributable to the co-founders of evolutionary psychology, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby) is to believe that human behavior is infinitely malleable, capable of being molded and shaped limitlessly in any way by cultural practices and socialization. Available evidence shows that this view is false. Human behavior, while malleable, is not infinitely malleable by culture, because culture is not infinitely variable. In fact, despite all the surface and minor differences, evolutionary psychologists have shown that all human cultures are essentially the same.

To use a famous metaphor, coined by the cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris, it is true that, at the surface level, people in some societies consume beef as food and worship pigs as sacred religious objects, while those in others consume pork as food and worship cows as sacred religious objects. So there is cultural variety at this concrete level. However, both beef and pork are animal proteins (as are dogs, whales, and monkeys), and both pigs and cows are animate entities (as are Buddha, Allah, and Jesus). And people in every human society consume animal proteins and worship animate entities (as I explained in an earlier post). At this abstract level, there are no exceptions, and all human cultures are the same. There is no infinite variability in human culture, in the sense that there are no cultures in which people do not consume animal protein or worship animate entities.

To use another example, it is true that languages spoken in different cultures appear completely different, as anyone who ever tried to learn a foreign language knows. English is completely different from Chinese, neither of which is anything like Arabic. Despite these surface differences, however, all natural human languages share what the linguist Noam Chomsky calls the “deep structure” of grammar. In this sense, English and Chinese are essentially the same, in the sense that beef and pork are essentially the same.

Any developmentally normal child can grow up to speak any natural human language. Regardless of what language their genetic parents spoke, all developmentally normal children are capable of growing up to be native speakers of English, Chinese, Arabic, or any other natural human language. In fact, when a group of children grow up together with no adults to teach them a language, they will invent their own natural human language complete with grammar. This does not mean, however, that the human capacity for language is infinitely malleable. Human children cannot grow up to speak non-natural language like FORTRAN or symbolic logic, despite the fact that these are far more logical and easier to learn than any natural language (no irregular verbs, no exceptions to rules). Yes, a developmentally normal child can grow up to speak any language, as long as the language is a product of human evolution, not a recent invention of computer scientists or logicians.

Pierre van den Berghe, a pioneer sociobiologist at the University of Washington, puts it best when he says

Certainly we are unique, but we are not unique in being unique. Every species is unique and evolved its uniqueness in adaptation to its environment. Culture is the uniquely human way of adapting, but culture too evolved biologically.

Despite all the surface differences, there is only one culture, because culture, like our body, is an adaptive product of human evolution. The human culture is a product of our genes, just like our hands and pancreas are.

Biologically, human beings are very weak and fragile; we do not have fangs to fight predators and catch prey or fur to protect us from extreme cold. Culture is the defense mechanism with which evolution equipped us to protect ourselves, so that we can inherit and then pass on our knowledge of manufacturing weapons (to fight predators and catch prey) or clothing and shelter (to protect us from extreme cold). We don’t need fangs or fur, because we have culture. And just like -- despite some minor individual differences -- all tigers have more or less the same fangs and all polar bears have more or less the same fur, all human societies have more or less the same culture. Fangs are a universal trait of all tigers; fur is a universal trait of all polar bears. So culture is a universal trait of all human societies. Yes, culture is a cultural universal.

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