Biology and Culture: An Untenable Dualism

Biology and Culture: An Untenable Dualism



The concept of the biological engages in three conceptual contrasts: the biological versus the physical (inorganic, inanimate); the biological versus the divine (supernatural, godlike); the biological versus the cultural (invented, constructed). I am concerned with the last of these contrasts: the idea that the cultural falls outside the scope of the biological—that culture is essentially non-biological. I wish to question this contrast, maintaining instead that culture is a special case of biology. Properly understood, biology includes culture, so that cultural studies are a type of biological studies. Culture is as much a biological fact of the human species as anatomy and physiology. This is not intended as a reductive claim but simply as correct taxonomy; it is a claim about the extension of the concepts as ordinarily understood.

The question obviously turns on what is meant by the word “biological”. The OEDhas “relating to biology or living organisms”. This gives the desired result quite straightforwardly: culture is clearly an aspect of living organisms, since humans are organisms that live. The culture of a community is part of its way of life (compare Wittgenstein’s “form of life”)—culture is a living thing. There is no culture where there is no life—there is no culture of rocks or electrons. Culture is thus a biological trait of humans, like speaking or walking or breathing. It certainly isn’t a physical trait or a divine trait; it’s how certain organisms live. Arts, customs, religions, and so on are woven into the life of certain evolved organisms. But, it may be objected, this is too quick, since culture is not instinctive or innate or genetically fixed—hence not part of our biology. We invent culture; we acquire it; we construct it. Culture is not prefigured in the genes but freely created, which is why it varies from place to place and time to time. Thisis the intended contrast, not captured by the dictionary definition. In a word, culture isn’t genetic.

The point may be conceded, though with the insistence that culture depends upon genetically transmitted capacities (such as the human power to create, stipulate, and legislate). It is true that the contentsof a particular culture are not written into the genes, though its enabling conditions no doubt are—just as Englishis not written in the genes, though the general capacity for language is. There is no gene for literary modernism or surrealism in painting or punk rock. However, it is far from clear that this is the right way to define the biological. For, first, many aspects of the life of organisms count as biological that are not genetically encoded: for example, local knowledge and specific actions. The genes don’t determine what an animal will know of its local environment or which particular individual it will mate with—these are contingencies of its particular history. But it would be strange to deny that they are biological facts: they are certainly not physical (inanimate) facts or divine (spiritual) facts. When a predator strikes this token event is not preordained in its genes but is nevertheless a fact of natural biological history. The sentence “The lion killed the antelope” records a particular biological (zoological) event. Similarly for such facts as the spread of a species across a continent—this too is a biological affair. This is because these facts concern the life of organisms, and life is more than what is contained in the genes.[1]They are, in the jargon, epigenetic—yet still plainly biological in nature. A wound is also a biological business, though not genetically predetermined. There is clearly much more to biology than strands of DNA. Indeed, DNA itself is not clearly a living thing, but simply a complex molecule; only in the context of an organism’s life does it count as part of biology (the same is true of other molecules in the body). We had the concept of the biological before we knew anything about genes and DNA, or even inheritance, so that concept can’t be tied by definition to the genes; intuitively, it is simply the concept of what is alive.

And, second, what if we encountered a species (perhaps on another planet) that had the same art, customs, religions, etc. as us but these were all innate in that species? What if the species had its culture as a result of genetic endowment? Would that mean that they hadno culture, because culture by definition is gene-independent? I don’t think so: they simply have a culture that is caused differently from ours. The contents are the same though the origin is different, so the right thing to say is that they have a culture very like ours. The concept of the cultural does not logically exclude genetically based culture, on pain of denying that this species has a culture. It isn’t that this “culture” is biological but is not really a culture; rather, the culture exists as a result of a certain kind of biological fact, viz. the genes. Indeed, it could turn out that ourculture is genetically determined (contrary to current theory)—this is an epistemic possibility. If that turned out to be true, would we conclude that we never had a culture all along? No, we would conclude that our culture is genetically based, contrary to what we thought. So the concept of culture does not require freedom from genetic influence, and the concept of the biological does not require dependence on such influence. The conceptual pair biological-culturalcuts across the conceptual pair genetic-acquired (invented). Thus we can’t rule out the thesis that culture is a special case of biology by observing  (truly) that culture is not innate.

On what grounds could we deny that culture is a form of biology? Well, we could claim that it is merely physical, or alternatively that it is positively supernatural. Presumably the size and weight of an organism is not a biological property of it but a merely physical property, since you don’t have to be a living organism to have size and weight. True enough, but culture is not possessed by non-living objects, only by living organisms. So culture belongs with the life of organisms not with the inanimate world of objects having size and mass. Culture is an attribute of life not of lifeless matter in motion. On the other hand, if we had a divinely created immortal soul that exists independently of the evolutionary process, and culture grows from that supernatural entity, then indeed culture would not be properly designated biological. The soul would not be biological (as God is not[2]) and culture is its special province. But I take it such a view is just empirically false: we have no such supernatural part or essence, any more than other animals do. The point is that giventhis fact culture must be rated biological; it can’t be non-biological unlesswe have a divine part of the sort suggested. Thus once we accept that culture is not physical and also not divine the only thing left for it to be is biological.

Granted, there are potent conversational implicatures at work here. In many contexts if I assert, “Culture is biological” I will be taken to assert (or be committed to holding) something false, namely that culture is genetic or somehow just like reproduction and digestion, or as subscribing to some form of biological reductionism (“it’s all in the genes”, “there is nothing to humans but their bodies”). But such implicatures are not part of the very meaning of the term “biological”, as the dictionary confirms, which term merely captures the notion of a living organism. It is the same with psychology: psychology is really part of biology (the part concerned with the minds of organisms), though it could be misleading to say this in certain contexts, suggesting perhaps that psychology is reducible to physiology or that the mind is wholly in the genes. Implicatures, as always, are not logical implications; pragmatics is not semantics. Since we are here in ideological territory, it would not be surprising if the entire resistance to subsuming culture (and psychology) under biology derives from these fraught implicatures and not from the mild thesis under consideration. That thesis, to repeat, is just the anodyne suggestion that culture is part of the life of a particular animal species—not a divine infusion or a chunk of inanimate nature. Part of the life of the human species is reproduction and digestion, part comprises the various compartments of the mind, and part is the culture we have invented (with some input from the genes). Our inventions are as much part of our natural form of life as our anatomy; they are not somehow “above” it or discontinuous with it. And note that culture is a species universal, even if its form varies from case to case: all human societies have a culture. Martian scientists would add it to our phenotype along with our other traits and study it as such. The idea of a radical discontinuity here is really a relic of discarded religious conceptions of the nature of human beings, with their dualist views of the mind and body. It is a kind of superstition.

It is a question whether other species have anything deserving to be called culture. Evidently Neanderthals did and probably other hominid species too, but some existing species may also possess rudiments of culture—language, an aesthetic sense, rituals, tools, social hierarchies. We can certainly easily imagine other species with a culture resembling ours (they are the stuff of science fiction). The important point is that in these cases we would be ready to accept that culture is continuous with biology: for there is nothing in the contentof culture that precludes a biological perspective on it. If bees had a primitive culture, we would not jib at the suggestion that this is part of bee biology (certainly not a manifestation of the god of bees). And what we call culture is clearly woven into accepted biological aspects our nature—just consider eating and courting, dressing and dancing. Where does biology stop and culture begin? It is all just part of life’s rich pageant, as the saying goes—what constitutes the life of a particular species on a particular planet at a particular time. Human culture grew over time and its early manifestations were obviously dependent on the biological nature of our ancestors—there is no point at which biology ceased and culture took over as a separate force. Culture is just a new twist on biology.[3]Anthropology is a branch of biology, but directed at a particular aspect of our nature. If other species had more in the way of culture, as might be true on distant planets, there would have to be several branches of anthropology (and a new name for it), with a blurring of the boundaries between biology and these other studies. The physical sciences deal with the inanimate, inorganic world, while the biological sciences deal with the animate, organic world—with life in all its dimensions (cellular, psychological, cultural). The biological character of culture should not be a controversial thesis, despite those looming implicatures. The OEDdefines “culture” as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively”. Nothing in that definition opposes culture to biology, and indeed the reference to human intellectual achievement places culture firmly in the biological domain, because human intellect precisely is a biologically based species characteristic. Culture is certainly not an imposition from outside, as if infused by God’s magic finger. Ultimately, of course, it depends on the brain, a biological organ of the body.

It might be protested that culture differs from biology in one crucial respect, viz. that it is not functional. Biological traits contribute to survival (of the genes ultimately) or they are eliminated by natural selection, but culture rises above these crude laws of nature—it serves no biological purpose. It is splendidly unconcerned with mere survival; it might even operate counter to survival (e.g. religious martyrs). Let us agree that culture is not biologically adaptive, at least in every respect: does that show it is not biological? No, because many traits of organisms are biological but not adaptive—they are side effects of adaptive traits. Plausibly, culture is a side effect of human intelligence (see the dictionary definition), which is adaptive; so it is a side effect of something biologically functional. If so, it is biological in just the way other side effects of adaptive traits are—heavy coats, fragile feathers, tottering bipedal walkers, and energy-hungry brains. The underlying traits confer advantages, but they also carry costs—biological costs. In any case, the non-functionality of culture is no proof of its non-biological status. There is really nothing to inhibit us in accepting the banal truth that culture is as much part of life as anything else in biology.[4]


Colin McGinn

[1]Natural selection itself is not encoded into the genes of nature (there are no such genes), but it is still a biological process, because it concerns life. It isn’t determined by genes (though it does determine them), but it is the biological process par excellence. The same might be said of mutation: there are no genes formutation, but it is a biological event nevertheless. Being biological and being in the genes are not coextensive properties, let alone synonyms.

[2]Actually the question is not entirely straightforward: as a matter of theology, we can agree that God is not a biological being, but is he not alive? He isn’t dead and he isn’t inanimate, so isn’t he a living thing in some sense? I won’t pursue the question.

[3]One consequence of this perspective is that English (that particular natural language) is as biological as the innate universal grammar that underlies it.

[4]Biology used to be called natural history (compare physics as natural philosophy): in that nomenclature we could say that culture is part of natural history—as is history itself. The same could be said employing the phrase “life sciences”. The word “bio” comes from a Greek word meaning “life”, so that “biology” just means “study of life”.


15 responses to “Biology and Culture: An Untenable Dualism”

  1. Joseph K. says:

    Very stimulating and persuasive.

  2. Giulio Katis says:

    I take your claim isn’t just that culture is dependent on biology in an analogous way that biology is dependent on chemistry, and chemistry on physics. What is a good example to show that a study of culture really should use the language and concepts, or the logic if you like, of biology, rather than its own distinct ones? (Apologies if you have already provided this or if self-evident.)

    • It doesn’t need to use the language of biology, if that means the language used in describing the bodies of organisms. It can use the language it already uses. Linguistics can use the language of grammar and phonetics and yet be part of biology. The extended phenotype can include the environment in its descriptions and still be part of biology.

  3. says:

    If our kind of consciousness is a pre-condition on the development of our kind of culture, yet the explanation of consciousness is cognitively closed to us, doesn’t it follow that so too is the explanation of culture? Since I despise merely rhetorical questions, let me add something more substantive: psychology is the intervening variable between biology and culture, but there seems to be a peculiar sort of two-way traffic between psychology and culture, unlike any other form of supervenience—physics to chemistry to biology.

  4. Giulio Katis says:

    Putting culture aside for a moment, I guess I have always thought that mind is, and isn’t, part of the domain of biology in much the same way that life is, and isn’t, part of the domain of chemistry. But maybe that’s a naive comparison.

  5. Giulio Katis says:

    Mind is part of biology, of course, but there are aspects that may be usefully thought of in non-biological terms, having their own specific logic.

    For example, aspects of mind that can be explained in terms of neural circuitry, the organism, or in terms of specific evolutionary or developmental factors etc would be biology; and aspects that relate to logical properties associated with say the thinking process or with the determination of concepts that are discoverable purely through introspection (and therefore do not require a knowledge of the biological substratum) would not be. Logic itself, for instance. (That’s not to say those thinking processes could not additionally be understood in a biological context.)

    The same goes for biology: it’s all chemistry and physics, but there are features of life that have their own specific logic and are not best understood in chemical or atomic/subatomic terms. What parts of biology would you say are not parts of chemistry or physics?

    • Biological theories, like the theory of evolution, are not chemical or physical theories. But grammatical theories are part of biology in the extended sense, not brain physiology, as are theories of thought, because thought is a biological property (like consciousness). It’s like Dawkins’ extended phenotype.

  6. Giulio Katis says:

    I can’t tell if I agree with you or almost everywhere (as we say in mathematics) agree with you. Probably I am still working it out myself.

    Language is an extended phenotype, and it should of course be studied as part of biology. But it also has its own internal structure and logic, Eg grammar – and we can develop a theory of that particular structure and logic. I would not call such a theory a biological theory, but rather a grammatical theory of language. Of course, one can (and should) also consider a biological theory of grammar, which would consider how biology has influenced the development of the grammatical structures and properties of language.

    • You keep restricting the biological to concepts of the body, but the whole point is that this is too narrow. Pain is biological in itself (evolved, genetically coded, functional) just like limbs and internal organs. It’s part of life not the inanimate or divine.

  7. Giulio Katis says:

    Well then I have failed to express what I think, as you have read something quite different into my words than what i intended.

  8. Giulio Katis says:

    It is one thing to say grammar should be considered part of biology, and another thing to say that a grammatical theory of X is a biological theory.

    • A grammatical theory is a theory of a certain psychological competence (Chomsky); that competence is innate and evolved; so a grammatical theory is a biological theory.

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