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Naturalistic Theory of Culture 16 February 2010

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Teaching.

I’m constantly working on explaining the naturalistic theory of culture to my students. I have posted on this several times in the past and am still working it out. I want my students to understand both that culture is plastic and context dependent, and that culture is also always embodied and emergent from interaction. My main beef with postmodern views of culture isn’t that they emphasize its contingency, but rather that they often elide the ways that it is connected to the material, biological, obdurate world  that produced it. Often (and I admit that I’m being glib and gestural here), postmodern cultural theory becomes a “nothing is real” stance, mistaking the fact that human culture is contextual and emergent for proof that it is disconnected from the world. Also, the constructivist view (which I am 90% in agreement with) often ends in a cultural determinism which is, for me, as problematic and irksome as a biological determinism. In short, culture is not an independent, self-referential, pure construction; it is rather a grounded, embodied emergent property of the interaction of brains in environments.

I begin my “Nature and World Cultures” course with a three-week crash course in human evolution where I attempt to demonstrate the emergence of the cultured-brain as an effect of evolution, and where I try to give the students the base for seeing at a base, empirical level the ways that minds (what brains do) and the “environment” (i.e., nature) are so connected as to blur into the same thing. My stance here is based on John Dewey’s extended argument in Nature and Experience, but has built from there from my readings in evolutionary theory, cognitive science, and from my own empirical research about gay men and meaning.

Here is my most recent attempt to explain to students my conception of a naturalistic explanation of culture. I’m using the word “umbworld” (a back formation from an Old English word) to emphasize that the human environment is both physical/ecological and social (as is actually true of all social species).

At the end of class today, we had arrived at the central thesis of the first section of the course, which is our working theory of culture: its origins, how it works, why it exists, how it changes over time. It is naturalistic (which is a word from philosophy) because it insists that the separation between “nature” and “culture” is a false one. Here are some key ideas that arise from the information we’ve discussed the past two class days.

1) Nature and culture are not separate, but are the same thing, or to say it differently, inextricably, constitutively linked.

a) the contents of our mind (culture), the very way we think and what we think about, come from our brain’s interaction with the umbworld (nature).

b) the contents of our mind (our culture) recursively acts upon the umbworld constantly transforming it (i.e., nature), which in turn, transforms the contents of our mind (culture) which in turn transforms the umbworld (nature), and so on.

2) Without the obdurate, physical environment (including other humans), our minds wouldn’t exist. Mind (culture) arises (emerges) our of constant, never-ending interaction with the umbworld (which includes nature). And the umbworld itself is emergent, and arises out of the constant interaction with human minds (cultures).

3) The naturalistic theory of culture, then, insists that asking the question “nature or nurture” or “biology or culture” is the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking how our evolutionary biological form produced the cultural brain; how culture is an emergent property of brains in a society; that culture only exists in a body (culture is embodied) and could not exist without a body; that the beliefs, practices, and objects of any individual or group emerge over time in specific umbworlds; that the brain evolved to give a degree of agency over both the umbworld and its own consciousness to solve problems; and finally because culture is inextricably linked to the environment and because the environment is constantly changing, so is culture a necessarily emergent property of the brain, not a thing in itself.



1. mattblack - 19 February 2010

I’ve just been doing some deeper reading in cyberpunk (i.e. watching and reading interviews and thinking through some of the underlying issues) and William Gibson says some interesting things about technology and humans. The gist is that technology is not outside of us but that it is in us and that thinking that there’s a real boundary between “us” and “it” is common but false. In other words, technology or cyberspace isn’t an external reality but an embodied reality in us. There’s a pretty good documentary where he talks about this called “No Maps for These Territories.” It’s pretty easy to extend his argument to include all culture and there may be a clip or two in there that might be relevant to your discussion with students.

2. Postmodernism and Mormonism: Part 5 « Runtu’s Rincón - 26 February 2010

[…] only in context, and that context is inescapably bound in with language and culture. As professor Todd Orsmby writes: 1) Nature and culture are not separate, but are the same thing, or to say it differently, […]

3. Kristina - 11 June 2010

Thank you for this explanation! I’m a graduate student in English who’s about to embark on a “biocultures” course and I’ve been poking around to try and grasp what that is and have found it’s a concept connected to many fields of study. Your explanation, however, helps me to understand that basic ground upon which a concept like “bioculture” is constructed.

Other than Dewey, what other texts do you have your students read? Any books you can recommend for someone new to this branch of theory?

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