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How Nature Nurtures Nurture: Evolutionary Accounts of Culture

In the article “How Nature Nurtures Nurture: Evolutionary Accounts of Culture” David Kreiner offers critical review of ‘Evolution and Culture: A Fyssen Foundation Symposium’ edited by Stephen Levinson and Pierre Jaisson. In particular, Kreiner discusses cultural evolution, the barriers between the human and biological, evolution and culture, etc. Human behavior is influenced by both biological and cultural factors, and distinction between them is a matter of particular interest for psychologists. The nature-nurture debate has gained wider interest and more and more researchers and psychologists offer original comments on thee issue.

Kreiner says that in the preface to the book Pierre Jaisson stresses that human behavior is rooted in culture. However, the idea is demolished in the article “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature”. Pinker, the author of opposing article, argues that the Jaisson’s model is incorrect as human behavior is also affected by biological factors, and it is invalid to separate culture from biology. Nonetheless, despite certain criticism, the overall theme of the book remains culture that has developed through natural selection.

Kreiner illustrates mutual interdependence of cultural and biological factors in Levinson’s twin track approach in introduction. Levinson argues that genetics and culture are interrelated meaning they have evolved through natural selection. Cultural evolution is defined as the process of cultural process through Darwinian-line process. Levinson and Jaisson argue that cultural evolution has evolved through natural selection itself; not through the process similar to Darwin’s selection model. The authors address several problems associated with approach.

They discuss a paradox set by Boyd and Richerson who argue that evolution presupposes that selfish behavior is adaptive, whereas altruistic behavior seems to have been eliminated. Thus, they argue that natural selection would hardly produce such behavior that would tie large groups together. The only explanation is moralistic reciprocity meaning that large reciprocity groups are maintained by cognitive abilities. Dennett offers how own resolution to the paradox. He assumes that “natural selection works only through copying messages, whereas changes in culture must involve the processing of meaning”.

(Kreiner) It means that cultural trait is very likely to be transmitted to the next generation instead of to be copied by it. Thus, the agents involved in cultural transmission are products of natural selection. Further, Sperber claims that culture is naturalistic because it can be described at the level of biological mechanisms. Sperber recommends the concept of casual chains that are sufficient for explaining naturalistic origin of culture. He agrees with Dennett that brain processes of humans should be included in naturalistic explanation of culture.

Further, Kreiner addresses the validity of evolutionary explanations trying to reveal whether they are not just speculations. Kreiner writes that edition is full of speculations and vice and it is hardly to avoid them. Evolutionary psychology perspective offers explanations that are not tested and proved through practical researches, and, thus, some explanations are highly vague and speculative. As an example Kreiner draws explanations of Knight and Almstrom who criticized evolution of consciousness and distinctions between speculative and deductive methods developed by Cosmides.

Kreiner says that Cosmides prefers deductive method in explaining evolutionary psychology meaning that there are adaptive problem and psychological mechanism that will solve it. Kreiner claims that majority of authors in ‘Evolution and Culture’ take speculative approach meaning they assume that adaptive problems can be solved by various cultural aspects. However, Boyd and Richerson are among the few who provide logical arguments that behavior is the result of natural selection. They offer data from New Guinea that illustrate that group extinction is observed and cultural variations between groups are present.

In such a way they demonstrate the cultural evolution is testable. Boehm agrees with speculative explanation of cultural evolution, although he argues that “their importance for defining the human condition justifies their being considered on the basis of relative plausibility”. (Kreiner) Boehm proposes to refer to conservative assumptions when explaining how morality is influenced by general selection. Kreiner concludes that reasoning styles are not always convincing and valid. He means that arguments that culture is the result of natural selection should be supported by evidence that eliminates vague speculations.

For Dunbar, for example, cultural evolution underlies the theory of mind. He means that humans are better in tasks that require reading of intentions. Kreiner says that such explanation is not sufficient because Dunbar should provide evidence that there are not other cognitive differences between humans and animals. Finally, reviews the extent to which the culture is human. He writes that “one of the misconceptions about evolutionary explanations is that complex mechanisms appear suddenly, with no apparent precursors”.

(Kreiner) In contrast, Kreiner argues that complex mechanisms appear gradually, and evidence shows that there is a level of continuity between cultural behaviors in human generations. For example, Foley stresses that culture has evolved piecemeal, not suddenly. Thus, culture should be viewed as the result of specific selection conditions influenced by nature. Boehm argues that biology and human behavior are interrelated, and they can explain how cultural mechanisms have resulted from social behaviors.

Although it is proved that culture appears gradually, some authors claim that culture is uniquely human. Summing up, ‘Evolution and Culture’ illustrates that it is possible to provide specific and testable arguments about cultural evolution. Kreiner concludes that contributors show that culture is affected by biological factors and that it should be viewed as an aspect of biology. The central question remains how culture has evolved through natural selection, and ‘Evolution and Culture’ enhance understanding of cultural evolution, natural selections and dependence between biology and human morality.

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