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Lecture 2 Nature versus culture

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1 Lecture 2 Nature versus culture

2 The Nature versus Culture distinction is one of the most visible oppositions in Western culture. For the most part, culture is considered superior to nature. A modern consensus of cultural relativism has made the old conception of "Nature" with a capital anachronism.

in social science it is about what shapes us both as individuals and as members of society. Inherited genetic predisposition ("nature") or what we learn as we grow up ("nurture") that predominantly shapes us and our differences as individuals? Similarly, anthropologists ask how much of our behavior as a group is pre-determined by geography, culture, or history. Studies increasingly indicate what most of us know from common sense: these differences between us as individuals and those between groups of people can be explained by no single factor alone, but by the complex interaction between them.

4 The dichotomy between nature and culture can be partially explained by: - Darwin’s theory of evolution - colonial legacy of anthropology where non-western societies served as a contrast to complex and modern society of the West. - but also by the ways of differentiation:

5 The ways we tell differences between peoples:
race and genetics NATURE or biology religion, economy, technology  CULTURE race, genetics their environment religion, economy, technology development But two categories can overlap, since there has been an underlying assumption that those with the most advance culture are also ‘better’ naturally, that is, they have the best natural endowment (genes, intelligence, strength).

6 But questions arise: Whose judges about ‘advanced’ vs ‘primitive’? Whose scale was being used as the standard? Advanced in what sense?  kinship - Australian aborigines kinship system is the most complex, as well as religious concepts.  technology of locomotion - some of the Western nations  meditative practices - Hindus or Zen Buddhists most sophisticated. 19th century social theorists ranked peoples on an evolutionary, progressive, unilinear, and universe scale of cultures (with themselves at the top). Unilinear path of civilization. Only one scale and one orientation – up and West.

7 ASSUMPTION 1: It was assumed that homo sapiens developed to the modern form (two legged stance, opposable thumb, large brain) and then invented culture. Now it is generally accepted not just that homo sapiens developed from their ape-ical ancestors to their modern form but also, more importantly, that culture was part of that development. Clifford Geertz informs us that ‘the greater part of human cortical expansion has followed, not proceeded, the ‘beginning’ of culture’.

8 ASSUMPTION 2 Human nature is constant and that the differences are only superficial. Implication: e.g. a Shakespeare play, for example, could be understood by all people because people everywhere would have the same concepts, emotions, and motivations. A writer’s/artist’s genius is supposed to rest on his ability to appeal to universal emotions and circumstances. But: may be a people’s emotions and responses are instead conditioned by the particularities of the culture they live in? Anthropologist Laura Bohannan put these different positions to the test when she told the story of Hamlet to a group of Africans with whom she was living and conducting her anthropological fieldwork. A major difficulty arose with the translation – not just words, but the concepts. Was it possible to translate the concepts and emotions from Shakespeare’s world into the African language and context to render the story understandable to them, or did the translation totally alter it?

9 Concepts of nature in Anthropology:
external nature, the ecosystem, inner nature, or human nature. CULTURE Cultural is always something other than nature, culture always implies a transformation and denial of natural.

10 Binary oppositions: Levi-Strauss’s axiom: human societies distinguish between culture and nature. Through cooking - the transformation of the raw into cooked- that the passage from nature to culture is symbolised We know it’s raw only because we know what cooked is. Dualism. Interrelation between the two concepts. Our non-humanised surroundings may sometime appear as a major threat to human projects: they may threaten to destroy our crops, kill our livestock and so on. Every cultural project seems to imply a transformation of both external and human nature. Claude Levi-Strauss b.Nov.28, 1908

11 Stereotypical oppositions based on division between nature and culture
Men Women Ritual, political Biological, childbirth Mind Body Social Domestic Cultural Natural

12 strong relationship of mutual interdependence between the two.
BUT Nature - raw materials culture is based on strong relationship of mutual interdependence between the two. nature stronger and more permanent in character than cultural products, cultural products - fragile, vulnerable and temporary. nature as threatening and difficult to control, yet provider of raw materials for cultural products. Ambiguous: nature simultaneously a source of a legitimation and an opponent. Marilyn Strathern “After Nature” (1992): exceptional system of kinship and descent. Replacing ‘natural’ reproduction with (cultural) technologically controlled reproduction (test tubes, insemination, surrogate mothers). Changes our in conceptions of cultural and natural.

13 Two approaches to the nature-culture relationship:
- how nature and the nature-culture relationship is conceptualised in different societies; - how nature (the environment or inborn characteristics of human) affects society and culture. Nature thus exists both as representation of something outside culture and society, yet influencing the ways in which humans live. As biological species, we take part in ecosystems and modify them; as cultural beings, we develop concepts about our environment and place ourselves outside it.

14 Human nature Orthodox view: a suite of capacities universal to the species. Some of them: language, bipedal locomotion, ability to make/use tools, self-consciousness, and the capacity to represent the world symbolically through art, design and ritual. It is said these capacities evolved gradually from ancient times. Human nature fixed in perpetuity, common to all of us, and underwriting everything we do.

15 If human beings differ from one another, whether at the level of the
individual or the population, this is not because of variations in their nature, but because of the particular circumstances they encounter in their lifetimes, including both the cultural tradition and the physical environment in which they were brought up. Walking and talking. We all do it. YET: people walk in very different ways, depending on factors (surface or terrain, footwear, as well as age, gender or status). E.g.: shuffling gait vs upright posture. Carrying devices (rucksacks to suitcases) are designed accordingly. Great differences, as well as startling similarities, can be seen when comparing world cultures. People around the globe are similar in their essential humanity: we communicate with each other, we sustain ourselves with food, and when we sleep we often dream. Yet we speak different languages, eat different foods, and dream different dreams. These are what we call cultural differences. What causes them is not always obvious to the ordinary person.

16 Example: Talking We all do it. Conclusion: it is human nature to speak. Language, like bipedal locomotion, is supposed to have evolved. But: people talk in variety of different ways, different languages of the world. So somehow we have to distinguish language as a capacity universal to the species, as a part of human nature, from the capacity to speak this language rather than which belongs to culture. Why searching for human nature?

17 But scientists insist on a universal architecture underwriting the human body and mind.
Thus a universal capacity for bipedal locomotion, as distinct from the variety of ways in which people actually walk, and a universal capacity for language, as distinct from the ways people actually talk. In both cases – whether it is the way you walk or talk – cultural particulars are said to be ‘added on’ in the lifetime of the individual, through the effects of experience, to a basic constitution that is already in place from the start.

18 No absolute attribute of humanity.
Statement: Human being is born of human parents. Human nature:  to walk on two feet - how about handicapped people?  to communicate by means of language – how about deaf and dumb?  abilities to socialise based on a mutual awareness of self and other – how about autistic people? The search for absolute, defining attributes of humanity is a hopeless endeavour. since whatever attribute you choose, there will be bound to be some creature born of man and woman in which it is lacking.

19 The appeal to universal human nature in the name of evolutionary biology is fraught with contradictions. While insisting on the continuity of the evolutionary process, it also reinstates the twin distinctions between biology and culture, and between evolution and history, setting an upper limit to the world of nature that humans alone appear to have breached. More than that, it asserts that human nature is fixed and universal while attributing its evolution to a theory – of variation under natural selection – that only works because the individuals of a species are endlessly variable. That is why evolutionists find themselves in the curious position of having to admit that whereas in the non-human world, biology is the source of all variability and difference, in the human world it is what makes all the same.

20 For it is indeed the case that while affirming human unity under the rubric of a single sub-species, we do so in terms that celebrate the historical triumph of Western civilisation. Our idea of what is universal to humans is shot through with moral undertones. It is not hard to recognise, in the suite of capacities with which all humans are said to be innately endowed, the central values and aspirations of our own society, and of our own time: uprightness, intelligence, technological superiority, and so on. Thus we inclined to project an idealised image of our present selves onto our prehistoric forebears, crediting them with the capacities to do everything we can do and have done in the past, such that the whole of history appears as a naturally preordained ascent towards the pinnacle of modernity. The bias is all too apparent in comparisons between ourselves and people of other cultures. Thus where we can do things that they cannot, this is typically attributed to the greater development, in ourselves, of universal human capacities. But where they can things that we cannot, this is put down to the particularity of their cultural tradition. This kind of reasoning rests on just kind of double standards that have long served to reinforce the modern West’s sense of its own superiority over ‘the rest’, and its sense of history as the progressive fulfilment of its own, markedly ethnocentric vision of human potentials.

21 Human abilities and skills: which of them are natural
and which are cultural? These skills are not only cultural. Capabilities inside our bodies. As much biological as cultural. Culture is not something ‘added on’ to human organisms but a measure of difference between them.

22 To sum up: There is no standard or universal form of human being Humans of today are different not only from one another, but also from their prehistoric predecessors. Because: characteristics are not fixed genetically, but emerge within processes of development. Human evolution is still going on. Not upward movement, not from lower to higher, not to a superior level of being, over and above the organic. For the very idea of a division between nature and culture is a Western conceit.

23 The anthropological concept of "culture" is a reaction against Western discourses on opposition “culture" and “nature", according to which some human beings lived in a "state of nature". Since humans acquire culture through learning, people living in different places or different circumstances may develop different cultures. Through culture people adapt to their environment in non-genetic ways, that is people in different environments will often have different cultures. Much of anthropological theory has originated in an appreciation of and interest in the tension between the local (particular cultures) and the global (a universal human nature, or the web of connections between people in distinct places/circumstances).

24 “It is, in my view, a great mistake to populate the past with people like ourselves, equipped with all the underlying capacities or potentials to do everything we do today. Indeed the very notion of human origins – the idea that at some point in evolution these capacities became established, awaiting their historical fulfilment – is part of an elaborate ideological justification for the present order of things, and as such just one aspect of the intense presentism of modern thought. It is high time, I think, for us to recognise that our humanity, far from having been set for all time as an evolutionary legacy from our hunter-gatherer past, is something that we have continually to work at, and for which we alone must bear the responsibility” (Tim Ingold).

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