What is Culture and What Does it Mean?

delivered at the August 1, 1999 service of the North Texas Church of Freethought

It's amazing how recent events have a way of lending significance and emphasis to what we talk about at the monthly services of the NTCOF. No sooner had we planned to consider culture and cultural differences this month than an article was published in Nature magazine that caused something of a stir in the popular media on the very same subject.

"Culture found in chimpanzees," said the headlines, or words to that effect. And Stephen Jay Gould weighed in on the Op-Ed page of July 3rd's New York Times with an article entitled, "The Human Difference," in which he says that:

"We have generally tried to unite our intellectual duty to accept the established fact of evolutionary continuity with our continuing psychological need to see ourselves as separate and superior, by invoking one of our worst and oldest mental habits: dichotomization, or division into two opposite categories, usually with attributions of value expressed as good and bad or higher and lower. … We tried behavior — the use of tools, and upon failure of this broad standard, the use of tool explicitly fashioned for particular tasks. (Chimps, after all, strip leaves off twigs, and then use the naked sticks for extracting termites out of nests.) And we considered distinctive mental attributes — the existence of a moral sense, or the ability to form abstractions. All have failed as absolutes of human uniqueness (while a complex debate continues to surround the meaning and spread of language and its potential rudiments.) … This research proves that chimpanzees learn behavior through observation and imitation and then pass them on to other chimpanzees. … the basic formulation of them vs. us, and the resulting search for a 'golden barrier,' represents a deep fallacy of human thought. We need not fear Darwin's correct conclusion that we differ from other animals only in degree. A sufficient difference in quantity translates to what we call difference in quality ipso facto. … [the] legitimate criterion of genuine and principled separation between Homo sapiens and any other species … [is] defined by historical and genealogical connection."

Perhaps it's only me, but Gould seems to have a way of dichotomizing things and sorting them into piles of "good" and "bad." In fact, it's surprising to me that it hasn't occurred to anyone to suggest that the human difference is exactly this disposition and capacity, which Gould considers "one of the worst and oldest mental habits" of our species. For it's not just "them vs. us." It's all the distinctions we make and the ways that we categorize them. It's distinguishing the real from the imaginary, matter from energy, life from non-life, plants from animals, and countless other possible ways of carving up the world of human experience into comprehensible bits of understanding. We can be both enlightened and misled in this project. But that is no more remarkable than that nearly all of its technological products, from fire to atomic fusion, can both save — or destroy — our lives.

Gould nonetheless makes a very good point, which is that if we want to think in broad, scientific abstractions, there is not that much difference between humans and chimpanzees, or even between humans and many other species. For once we abstract cyclotrons and space shuttles into the concept of "tools," we can say that a stick is also a tool. Likewise, the general concept of "language" can apply to honeybees instructing their fellows — by means of a little dance — the location and approximate dimensions of a source of pollen and nectar. And once we consider "culture" to be behaviors that are peculiar to groups of animals and are passed on within these groups by learning, rather than by genes, then we can say that chimpanzees — and many songbirds and, doubtless, other animals as well — possess "culture."

The curious thing about this question is that, for some reason, people like Gould are profoundly disturbed by the idea of refining what we mean when we consider "the human difference." In virtually all the other branches of science, it is taken for granted that progress includes identifying all the appropriate details and qualifiers. What the Greeks meant by atoms, for example, is not what we mean when we talk about atoms. Much more recently, astronomers have fallen to arguing about whether Pluto is really a planet. It's the same in the life sciences. We don't say that penguins aren't birds, for example, because they don't fly. Nor do we feel self-conscious when we say that if a penguin takes a great leap — as they do sometimes — that that qualifies as "flight." Again, we don't say that bats are birds — as the Bible does — just because they do fly.

So why should we tie ourselves up in knots about whether it's reasonable to use a definition of "culture" that is broad enough to include chimpanzees? We're playing mind games with ourselves when we do that.

It might be argued that these mind games are useful. After all, they've encouraged naturalists to study chimps and sociologists to study humans more closely. Some very interesting things have come of that, if you consider chimp grooming signals and feeding habits and which way humans wear their baseball caps and whether they shave their armpits to be interesting. I do. These mind games are also good for inciting us to be more specific about what we mean when we think and talk about what it is that makes us human. Perhaps mind games is what makes us human, to echo my earlier point about making distinctions and categorizing them.

But mind games are not very helpful when we get bogged down in them because we forget their real purpose. If someone says that culture consists of acquired behaviors that spread by imitation, and someone else shows that chimpanzees can do this, does that mean that there's nothing unique or special about human culture? Or does it mean that we cannot clarify and qualify the notion of "culture" so that it fits better with what most people think they mean by the idea? Is it "cheating" to do so, especially if we don't acknowledge that sticks poked into termite mounds are "tools" no less legitimate than telescopes and microwave ovens?

How ridiculous! After all, it was hardly unknown before now that "chimpanzees learn behavior through observation and imitation." To "ape" has long meant to imitate or mimic behavior. That's the whole premise of the Curious George series of children's books. Nor was it ever reasonable to suppose that apes only "ape" when in captivity and not in the wild.

That is the scientific context of the Nature report. It's another fascinating bit of knowledge about chimpanzees, a species that has always fascinated us. But it is not an earth-shattering breakthrough that demonstrates an essential equivalence between humans and chimps. This is well shown by the conclusion that Stephen Jay Gould suggested, that the "legitimate criterion of genuine and principled separation between Homo sapiens and any other species" is that of the "historical and genealogical connection" between us. This is as true today as it was a year ago, or ten years ago, or even a hundred years ago, when it was realized that all living things on our planet are connected in these ways.

So what's all the commotion about? One reader wrote in to The New York Times after theNature report and Gould's Op-Ed piece complaining that "chimpanzee behavior, complex as it may be, does not arise out of choice." A professor of philosophy opined that, "only humans can create and understand new sentences never before heard." [He was apparently ignorant of the work done with teaching chimpanzees American Sign Language!], while someone else suggested that Gould's "own power to reason about this subject constitutes a good proof" of there being a chasm between humans and chimps. Another reader suggested that humans differ from chimps in that both parents raise children [Oh really?] and that "whether it was culture or genetic is secondary."

All of these objections arise because our understanding of ourselves and the world has another context besides a scientific one, a context which is much more familiar to most people than that of science. This is the context of our own personal experience, the context of our own humanity, and the context of our own human cultural imperatives, the most important of which is to see ourselves as somehow different, special, and superior.

We Freethinkers, perhaps more than most, have trained ourselves to recognize the human appetite for particular distinction in a world of distinctions that we ourselves have made. We see it in the tenacity with which Copernicus' heliocentrism and Galileo's astronomy was resisted, because these discoveries removed the Earth from its place at the center of a perfect and unchanging universe. We see it in the unreasoning opposition to the central unifying principle of the life sciences, evolution by natural selection (which Stephen Jay Gould admirably strives to champion), because it places human beings biologically alongside other species instead of over them. I think we saw it, at least fleetingly, in the embarrassing victory of IBM's "Deep Blue" computer over reigning world chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997. And we definitely see it in the pervasive popularity of supernatural belief. Here it is again in the anxiety and apprehension attached to "new" and "startling" scientific facts about chimpanzees.

Freethinkers can surely share in the credit for there being a wider recognition and appreciation of this longing of our species for special status. And there is certainly a large measure of truth in the idea that this longing has led us into errors and even horrors on a monumental scale, from the genocidal wars and practices described in the Bible to the death camps of Hitler's Third Reich. Nor is the task of exposing and conquering this unreasoning bias ended. At the same time, perhaps it is also time that we Freethinkers took the lead in mapping out a view of the nature of human distinction and — yes — even merit that is consistent with facts and reason. This is, in part, what Freethought as religion is all about.

One of the most important obstacles to our doing this is the assumption by many that it is acceptable for science to become saturated, encrusted, and layered over with superstition. This, unfortunately, is Stephen Jay Gould's position: that it is perfectly all right for the Pope, for example, to posit souls being put into early proto-humans at some point in evolution. Gould calls this his theory of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria," or NOMA, which he has argued in the pages of Natural History magazine as well as in the current issue (July/August 1999) ofThe Skeptical Inquirer. The "Magisterium," by the way, just happens to be the title of the organ of the Catholic Church once known as the Inquisition.

I think we ought to take a far simpler and straightforward, if perhaps more "radical" approach to the problem of where science leaves off and religion begins, and vice versa. For Gould's "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" amount to science and superstition: two forms of reality, one of which can be seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled, and other of which has to be taken on revelations and faith. This is just not how things really are. The truth is that the two worlds we live in are marked off from each other by the kinds of experiences that we use to understand them: one which is objective and one which is wholly subjective.

It's our shared objective experience that causes us to infer the existence of a reality outside of and independent of ourselves. Moreover, what makes it objective is not that it is compelling to us to a degree where we cannot ourselves doubt it. It's that what we experience of it is — or can be made (without the use of torture!) — compelling to other people. This unity of experience allows us to create a unity of understanding about ourselves and the world, much of which is recognized as scientific understanding. And what is even more important, our shared objective experience is the only basis on which it is practical — and therefore morally justified — for us to deal with each other in most circumstances.

Our subjective experiences, on the other hand, are not of a single kind. They cannot be generalized and cannot be used to infer the existence of anything outside of ourselves. To the extent that they inform, enlighten, and guide us personally -, as they ought to — they constitute for us our own private, and necessarily separate realities. But nothing prevents us from sharing the thoughts and ideas that arise out of this with other people, either. Imagination and personal insights have always been and will likely continue to be the driving force of progress even in our drive to understand objective reality.

This is why it is not the idea of god(s) that is harmful and dangerous. If nothing else, its popularity among many decent people is proof of its poetic and symbolic appeal. What is evil — evil in its most fundamental sense — is the counterfactual and irrational belief that god(s) exist as an extension or complement of the objective world. That sort of belief has logical consequences that have reliably led to unhappiness and ruin.

Likewise, it is not inaccurate, improper, or arrogant for anyone to think that there is an enormous, unbridgeable chasm between human beings and chimpanzees — or between humans and other species. It's simply a matter of where in our experience the difference lies. For it's not "out there" in the external, objective world, in anatomy, genetics, or behavior and culture insofar as we are able to make such distinctions scientifically. Rather, it's "in here," in our internal, individual, subjective realities, and in our efforts to externalize those kinds of experiences in art, in literature, in music, and even in the sciences when they manage to express or, at any rate, to evoke in us a sense of the subjective human condition. But scientific methods simply cannot take into account definitions and perceptions of culture that are largely subjective.

To be sure, Cartesian "ghost-in-the-machine" dualism is — or ought to be — dead. Yet the divide between subjective and objective experience and understanding remains. Ghosts are superstition. We know that. But we should not abandon everything that is not "the machine" to religious superstition. We should not abandon a portion of our nature as human beings to the corrupting nonsense of gods and devils and heaven and hell and reincarnation. If we do, if we allow such an error to become an established feature of an emerging global human culture, then we might as well go back to stripping leaves off of twigs and using the naked sticks to fish for termites.

Thank you and Good Morning

© 1999 by Dr. Tim Gorski