Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Are Society and Culture Uniquely Human?

In an online discussion in the online section of this course, I had asked students whether "society" and "culture" were uniquely human or not. The following is my perspective on the question.

Society is clearly an important component of human life and experience, but just as clearly not unique to human beings. Many animal species have some form of social organization, some regular patterning to the way that individuals within a population interact with one another.

Examples of non-human societies would include wolf packs, lion prides, chimpanzee troups, colonies of “social insects” such as honey bees or ants, pods of whales or dolphins, etc. Some animal societies may include members of more than one species, such as some bird flocks comprised of multiple bird species that often utilize slightly different food resources but help one another through mutual defense, e.g. through alarm calls or mobbing potential predators. Some animals, and especially domesticated animals, include humans in a multiple species society. For example, domesticated chickens in a farmyard are social animals with a literal “pecking order,” but they couldn’t be said to comprise a society on their own, as they are dependent on humans for provisioning of food, which is to say that their human keepers are an essential component of their society, and various domesticated animals in turn are a part of our own human societies.

Human society can differ from non-human societies in a quantitative sense. Human society is typically much more complex than non-human social organization, but the presence of social organization alone doesn’t particularly distinguish us from many other animals.

Whether culture is uniquely human is a more complicated question. It does largely depend on how we define the term. If “culture” is defined in a minimalist way (as some cultural anthropologists and many primatologists or animal ethologists tend to do), such as “Culture consists of learned and shared lifeways,” then it is not a uniquely human trait.

Many mammals and birds have some aspects of their way of life that are learned and shared behaviors, i.e. behaviors that are not instinctual or biologically determined. Chimpanzees regularly use simple tools, with individual chimps learning their use through observation and trial and error, and different chimpanzee troups using different sorts of tools. Corvids (the group of birds that includes crows, jays, and ravens) have shown themselves to be quite clever in learning new behaviors. Many songbirds learn their songs from neighboring individuals, with regional “traditions” or “dialects” in the form of their songs. These are all examples of culture in that minimal sense of “learned and shared lifeways.”

Many cultural anthropologists tend to define culture in less minimalist ways. I previously said that I tend to think of human culture along these lines: “(Human) culture consists of learned and shared ways of life transmitted primarily through language and other forms of symbolic communication.”

These two strategies for defining culture (you could call them minimalist and maximalist strategies) often have particular aims. Some scholars have an interest in emphasizing commonalities between humans and non-human animals, and tend to use more minimalist definitions to do so. Others are more interested in emphasizing distinctions, and tend to use the other sort.

Personally, I find it useful to employ both sorts of definitions. It is important to recognize that learned, cultural patterns are an important aspect of the lives of many animals, and that they share this in common with us. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that human culture is both quantitatively and qualitatively distinct from non-human culture. Human culture is far more pervasive a quality in our lives as humans than anything we see in other species. The use of language and other symbolic communication to transmit culture makes us qualitatively different, e.g. we’re the only animals that we know of that could have a conversation about whether culture is unique to our species or not.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

Thank you for an explaination if you can go further to explain the thing in more details that will be much helpful

satyakumar upadhyay said...

Thank you for an explaination if you can go further to explain the thing in more details that will be much helpful