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Stanford Report, February 12, 2003

Anthropological puzzle: When does culture affect behavior?

BY JOHN SANFORD

Culture. It has something to do with appreciating art. It's often cited when people discuss why Americans work long hours. Now some scientists claim that orangutans have culture based on evidence of "socially transmitted behaviors."

In other words, the meaning of culture may seem clear enough when used casually, at a cocktail party, but like a Seurat painting it becomes less distinct upon close examination. And a sure-fire way to provoke a heated debate among a group of anthropologists is to make the definition of culture the focus of a conference. Melissa Brown, assistant professor of anthropological sciences, did just that a couple of weeks ago.

Held Jan. 24 and 25 in Encina Hall, "Toward a Scientific Concept of Culture" brought together 24 scholars from across the globe, including some of the world's most renowned anthropologists and biologists, to try to make sense of this enigma.

"Everybody talks about 'culture' these days -- e.g., grad student culture mentioned in the Daily, corporate culture in general and of specific businesses, and of course French culture or Chinese culture or Korean culture," Brown said. "However, it is not really clear what people mean by culture -- if we say that culture is what people do and what people do is their culture, then we have not explained anything really."

Most scientists acknowledge that, besides culture, many things influence behavior, including psychological, genetic and environmental factors. Brown said her inspiration for organizing the conference was the hope that, through cross-disciplinary analyses of these various influences, it would be possible "to formulate a concept of culture that is clear, bounded, built on cumulative knowledge and hopefully more easily empirically verifiable."

The majority of the conference-goers subscribed to an increasingly popular theory about the way in which culture and biology interact in evolution. That theory, co-evolution, holds that culture, defined as socially learned information, plays a key role in Darwinian evolution.

In the first talk of the conference, Professor Peter Richerson of the Environmental Science and Policy Department at the University of California-Davis expounded on this. Richerson presented a paper co-written with anthropology Professor Robert Boyd of the University of California-Los Angeles in which they assert that "if we think of culture as a part of human biology and as something that evolves in a broadly Darwinian manner, then evolutionary theory should play its accustomed role in the special case of our rather odd species."

Citing the theory that much of the variation in human behavior is acquired through teaching and imitation, Richerson and Boyd assert that "cultural differences have arisen by processes of cultural evolution that are crudely similar to organic evolution, though by no means identical."

The next speaker, Stanford Professor Arthur Wolf, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation Professor in Human Biology, made a somewhat more provocative argument: that culture -- conceived of as ideas -- doesn't matter much when it comes to determining human behavior. Indeed, Wolf asserted that "to try to account for human behavior in terms of ideas -- singly or aggregated as culture -- is a serious mistake. Ideas are the small end of the ontological stick."

As evidence, he referred to research he conducted from 1957 to 1960 in a small Chinese village, where he studied mothers' and children's attitudes toward aggression. The mothers, he found, "were obsessively concerned to keep their children from fighting with their neighbors' children."

"Of 41 mothers who were asked if they ever encouraged their children to fight back, only five said that they would ever tell a child to do such a thing," he said.

Wolf also said he found it difficult to get children "to admit that there was any circumstance under which they would hit or curse another child." This was in striking contrast to American schoolchildren who were asked the same set of questions in English. "Sixty percent of the American children said they would hit a child who hit them hard as compared with only 17.9 percent of the Chinese children," Wolf said.

However, when he examined the actual behavior of the Chinese children, he found their "retaliatory rate" was even higher than that of a group of American children who were subjects of another similar study.

"The striking fact is that the Chinese, who were unwilling to admit that they ever fought back, were actually more likely to do so than the Americans who claimed that they always gave as good as they got," Wolf said. "My point is simply that for whatever reason, the ideas that children are taught do not have much influence on their behavior. The most one can teach children about aggression is what, ideally, they ought to do. This affects what they say but not what they do."

The final speaker of the first session also caused a stir. Anthropology Professor Robert Borofsky of Hawaii Pacific University asserted the notion that anthropologists, on the whole, have not achieved a scientific study of culture. He noted that most anthropology textbooks define culture in largely the same way -- that is, as behaviors and characteristics shared within a group. Meanwhile, many anthropologists also emphasize diversity within groups, he said.

"But here is what surprises: Few people carry out such comprehensive studies -- at least to my knowledge -- to see what cultural sharing occurs in which contexts," Borofsky said. "One might suspect there would be massive studies given intra-cultural diversity undermines a basic anthropological concept -- culture as sharing."

Science should, in the spirit of Foucault, speak truth to power -- that is, challenge accepted or expedient theories and concepts, he said. To be taken seriously, scientific results should be able to withstand the test of replication. Yet few anthropologists try to repeat, or even investigate, the work of their peers, Borofsky said.

"In the abstract, many anthropologists affirm sharing of beliefs, behaviors -- or what have you -- constitute a key element of culture," Borofsky said. "And, in recognizing that the world is a messy place, many also acknowledge that perhaps cultural sharing is less pervasive, more problematic, than is generally asserted. But then no one really seems to care; few seriously investigate the issue."

Brown, who said she was pleased with the ideas and debates that emerged from the conference, plans to collect the various papers in a book, which she wants to submit to a publisher by the end of this academic year.

Her most recent book, Is Taiwan Chinese? The Impact of Culture, Power and Migration on Changing Identities, is being published by the University of California Press. It is due out in November.

Melissa Brown