What Is Culture? (BrainOS 1.0)

Deep in thought
What we think is limited by how we think.

More than ten years ago, at a family dinner, the conversation turned to the advances in genetics that were just beginning to link behavior with genetic propensities. A close family friend, a well-respected doctor and the guest of honor, was speaking about research that had shown how behaviors could be linked to specific choices and actions.

Ever the anthropologist (and sucker), I piped up, “has this data been tested cross-culturally?” I figured at least we could get into the discussion of relative merits of cross-cultural analysis for deeper understandings and avenues for further research.

With what amounted to a sneer, the doctor responded, “why would we want to do that?” Since the party was in his honor, I declined to take the bait.

Culture: The Second Most Powerful Force in the Universe

The answer to the question above is that the categories that we use to understand behavior aren’t a priori, and cross-cultural analysis allows us to get at what the genes actually do, rather than just how they’re expressed in our one culture. In other words, it would be “better” science.

Sometimes it amazes me how little we’re aware of the strength of our own culture upon our thoughts, choices, and mental categories–many of the things that we daily accept (at least provisionally, but often wholly) as true.

Because of the Western definition of “Truth” as being true in all times and places–a definition formed under the historical influence of both monotheistic religion and positivist science–we find it very difficult to understand that there’s more to the world than just two categories:

  1. A priori categories (things that are true in all times and places)
  2. Stuff that’s made up (everything else)

Partly because culture fits into the space between, it’s hard for people to really wrap their heads around the idea that there are a lot of things in the world that can be effectively true without always being true in all times and places.

Culture: Operating Systems for Humans

When we look at culture, the challenge that we face is that we elide our perceptions with some objective perception of ultimate reality. In other words, against the advice of philosophers across the ages, we don’t take into account that not only our perceptions, but also our thoughts themselves are imperfect.

Imperfect. Not “flawed”–because that seems to assume that there could be some kind of flawless thought. Our thoughts aren’t independent of physical reality. They’re more like “software” running on primate wetware.

As much as we “think” by using the “hardware” of the brain,  we also think by using the “operating system” of culture. Functionally, for most people, there’s no distinction between the two. We just think certain things are true because they work.

Dipping into extended metaphor, most people don’t care about computers or operating systems, they just want to run their applications in peace. In this same way, most people don’t care about any distinction between physical facts and social facts–they just mix the two together in a way that works.

For those of us who do study human behavior, maybe it’s time to stop trying to win the argument (we’ll leave that for dinner parties), and work together to develop models of behavior that take all the facts into account, not just the convenient ones.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s