Monday, January 14, 2008

IV. Instincts and Culture

In discussing various features of the human brain, I have not forgotten the destination I have set out for: the issue of human instincts/universals of human behavior. But it has to be established that our brains do have various structures that have definite effects on our behavior and in making us who we are before we can take the step into asserting the existence of human instincts. We have, according to E. O. Wilson (actually, George P. Murdock, whom Wilson is quoting), identified at least sixty-seven cultural universals so far:

age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethno-botany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire-making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift-giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool-making, trade, visiting, weather control, and weaving. (Wilson, OHN, 160)

Each of these, in various forms, can be found in every culture, throughout history. My guess is there are many more than just these (again, the above calculation suggests around 250). In Natural Classicism, Frederick Turner adds combat, gifts, mime, friendship, lying, love, storytelling, murder taboos, and poetic meter to the list of sixty-seven. And in The Culture of Hope, and in Beauty, he gives a list of what he calls neurocharms (208-210), many of which could also be considered cultural universals, since they are found in every human culture. Many of these, such as narrative, selecting, classification, musical meter, tempo, rhythm, tone, melody, harmony, and pattern recognition can be found in other animals, including chimpanzees, gibbons, and birds. Others, such as giving meaning to certain color combinations, divination, hypothesis, metaphysical synthesis, collecting, metaphor, syntactical organization, gymnastics, the martial arts, mapping, the capacity for geometry and ideography, poetic meter, cuisine, and massage (which would be a development of mammalian and primate grooming rituals, which humans also engage in, as any couple can tell you), are uniquely human.

The existence of these instincts has some implications for art and literature. When Turner points out that both humans and animals ritualize “mating, aggression, territory, home-building, bonding, ranking, sexual maturity, birth” while only humans ritualize “time and death” (9), it is as though he was equally pointing out all the themes one would expect to find in a great novel, play, or epic poem, and which very well may be a list of the themes of all the great works of literature. Turner himself points out that considering all of the cultural universals make it “tempting to propose that a work of literary art can be fairly accurately gauged for greatness of quality by the number of these items it contains, embodies, and thematizes” (26), since “it is the function of [literature] to preserve, integrate and continually renew this deep syntax and lexicon [of cultural universals], while using it to construct coherent world-hypotheses” (26).

In a more directly evolutionary sense we may wonder where these universals came from. How did these specific strange attractors – rules of human actions – arise to generate all of the world’s various cultures? And are they universal? And would these universals not restrict human action, giving us less freedom (do they not argue for our behaviors being determined)? Every culture in the world, throughout all of human history, has had religion. Does this restrict the expression of any culture or individual? Hardly. It has led to a very large number of expressions. The forms of religion have varied: various monotheisms, polytheisms, pantheisms, nature religions, the promises of various utopias, earthly and transcendent, not to mention individual interpretations of each religion, showing how much variety one can get in unity. I will deal with more specific issues of religion in a later chapter, but let me suffice it to say that even atheists have found religions to replace the transcendental ones: Marxism, Freudianism, etc. People like Sartre have given up Christianity only to embrace the secular religion of Marxism. One would be hard pressed to find a single individual who did not have faith in something or someone. And one simply cannot find a single example of a culture without some form of religion.

But where do these instincts, or deep behaviors, come from? The natural place to look should be in the way the mind works, meaning, how the brain is structured. The deep structures of our brains have given us language, culture, and, as I argue, art and literature. But where does the brain get this tendency to create deep structures? The mathematics I have shown are highly suggestive in general terms, but what about the specifics? Why would evolution create instincts? And what is the relation of all of this to culture? Why would I consider something called “cultural universals” to be instincts?

Wilson observes that “For (anthropologists), a culture is the total way of life of a discrete society - its religion, myths, art, technology, sports, and all the other systematic knowledge transmitted across generations” (Wilson, 141-142). If we take away the details, we can see this definition is true not just for humans, but for most social species with long life spans. Bonner uses this definition of culture when he says that “culture involves communication between individuals of the same species, and therefore culture and society go hand in hand” (159). In a sense we observe each other into the same culture. Elephants learn, in part, how to be an elephant by watching other elephants. The same is also true of cetaceans and primates. They gain information through observation, and “tradition means a repetition of following out the instructions of the information” (Bonner, 161-2). Culture is maintained through the teaching of tradition, and includes followers of and innovators within that tradition. In their Scientific American article, “The Culture of Chimpanzees,” primatologists Andrew Whiten and Christophe Boesch show different wild chimpanzee troops act in different ways that can only be explained through cultural transmission. Subsequent generations of chimpanzees learn how to do certain things – hammering nuts, pounding with a pestle, fishing for termites (including variations on how to fish), eating ants, removing bone marrow, sitting on leaves, fanning flies, tickling self, throwing objects, inspecting wounds, clipping leaves, squashing parasites on leaves versus using fingers, inspecting parasites, arm clasping, knocking knuckles, and rain dancing (64-65) – that can only be explained by learning, which is, cultural transmission. Indeed, we see behaviors being taught to the young in many species – so what once made humans special, our being taught different things in different tribes, regions, or countries, is now seen to have a parallel in chimpanzees and bonobos. Culture did not start with humans. It started millions of years before humans evolved, and was crucial to our evolving into humans.

One could argue that human culture is much richer than that of chimpanzees. But culture is not a matter of degree. Is a chicken any less a bird than a peregrine falcon? The latter is the fastest bird in the world, a champion flier. Chickens can barely get off the ground. Each one’s wings have evolved to fit their particular lifestyles. Chickens have no need to fly fast; peregrine falcons would starve to death if they did not. So, yes, human culture is richer than chimpanzee culture. But even if humans are completely determined by culture, that culture started in our pre-human ancestors, so if we want to understand who we are as humans, we have to understand how culture arose in chimpanzees and bonobos to see how culture arose in humans.

Chaos theory tells us that all the structures in the universe have deep structures which have universal features. The repeated self-similar patterns of fractals are the memories of those patterns. The patterns of spiral galaxies, snail shells, the layout of seed patterns in sunflowers, and the patterns of eyespots on the decorative feathers of peacocks all exhibit the same proportions as the Fibonacci spiral (Doczi). The Fibonacci spiral (along with the Fibonacci series, and the golden mean ratio – which is, by definition, an irrational ratio, since the golden mean is nonrepeating after the decimal, making it irrational; thus the golden mean is both rational, as a ratio, and irrational simultaneously) is the simplest fractal form in the universe, and repeats the same pattern and proportions regardless of scale. Anything that exhibits the proportions of the Fibonacci series is fractal – meaning all life and all living growth are fractal. One of the features of fractals is the necessary presence of strange attractors, which pull the fractal into shape, while providing enough freedom to result in an infinite number of variations on those shapes. It is these strange attractors that create the deep structures of the universe, from the movement of galaxies to the orbits of stellar globular clusters to every element of the weather to population dynamics to brain structures which, once they become complex enough, result in things such as complex human cultures and languages. Deep structures in the brain are strange attractors, creating both the rules we must go by, and the freedoms those rules give us. Deep grammar, seen as a (set of) strange attractor(s), shows us how we can get such a diverse range of languages, while sticking to the rules of deep grammar. Language is a fractal and a dissipative structure – each language has definite structures, but those structures give us an infinite number of possibilities.

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker points out that “human intelligence may depend on our having more innate instincts, not fewer” (243), and the calculations of complex systems supports this idea. One could easily say that anything one could call universal, in that all human cultures in all places at all times have had them, should rightly be understood as an instinct. This gives us quite a long list of human instincts.

Insofar as instincts are behaviors one must do (i.e., we must language, we must narrate, we must experience beauty), meaning instincts are rules, we find we have many more degrees of freedom by having these rules. More freedom of the mind is the same thing as saying there is more intelligence. More instincts develop because

when an environment is stable, there is a selective pressure for learned abilities to become increasingly innate. That is because if an ability is innate, it can be deployed earlier in the lifespan of the creature, and there is less of a chance that an unlucky creature will miss out on the experiences that would have been necessary to teach it. (Pinker, 244)

The creation of more instincts in humans would have made us more adaptive to our environment, since our being able to innately enter into language, for example, makes our learning language much easier (I would argue, possible at all) than it would be if our minds had to literally create everything tabula rasa. One may object that if we learn at all, what we learn cannot be an instinct. But lions, which everyone would agree have the instinct to hunt, must also be taught how to hunt well if they are to survive. The fact that they also have to be taught what they know (that they have to learn to become who they are) does not negate their already knowing it on a certain level. It is the details that have to be taught. All the instincts, as well as Turner’s

charms involve a cooperation between a biogenetic endowment and a cultural tradition that can activate and shape it. We all have neural organs adaptively designed for the purpose of language, but also require the environment of a specific natural language to awaken them. The same applies to the skills of melody and harmony, of poetic meter and visual representation, of theatrical performance and cookery. (Beauty, 67)

So we can see that there is a cooperation between the instincts built into the brain and the environment in which the owner of the brain finds himself. However, one may also wonder why, if as Pinker says, making behaviors innate is beneficial, that all elements of our behavior are not innate. Why should we have to be taught the details? Pinker points out that

evolution, having made the basic computational units of language innate, may have seen no need to replace every bit of learned information [words, surface grammar, syntax] with innate wiring. Computer simulations of evolution show that the pressure to replace learned neural connections with innate ones diminishes as more and more of the network becomes innate, because it becomes less and less likely that learning will fail for the rest. (244)

The formulas I used earlier suggest another reason: to have all elements of language, including all words, as instincts would require a system with a truly astronomical number of elements. If we have a vocabulary of 10,000 words (quite small), we would need a brain with 1016 elements (N1016 ), which is much more than the 60,000 gene products we find in humans. We would have to have brains over 5000 times larger than we have if our vocabularies were made into instincts. It is much easier and more efficient to have to learn our specific vocabularies. By having an instinct to engage in a larger activity while having to be taught many of the details, we are given new levels of freedom.

The question still remains where these cultural universals – these instincts, these universal rules for human behavior within their cultures – came from. Recent research has shown that not only chimpanzees and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), our closest living relatives, but orangutans too, have culture. Different groups have different ways of behaving, which are passed down, not by genetics, but by learning from watching others. If we take the above list of sixty-seven human cultural universals, I can identify in that list twenty-four which chimpanzees share with humans: bodily adornment, cleanliness training (in some), community organization, cooperative labor (i.e., when they hunt), courtship, division of labor, ethics (see Frans de Waals’ Good Natured), family feasting (a true ritual in chimpanzees), games/play, gestures, gift-giving, government (in a primitive form, see de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics), greetings, hygiene (in cleaning each other of parasites), incest taboos (admittedly a questionable one, since it is clear the Westermarck effect is in effect, but not yet clear that it is also socially transmitted), kin groups, medicine (de Waal, The Ape and the Sushi Master, 254-255), postnatal care, property rights (chimpanzees are very territorial), ritual (see family feasting, above), status differentiation, tool-making, trade, and visiting. And this does not include the cultural differences found among chimpanzee troops (Whiten). I say there are only twenty four, but look at those twenty four. Are we really so much better because we have developed calendars when chimpanzees have developed medicine (albeit far more primitive than human medicine, to say the least, but quite impressive all the same)? Many of those uniquely human cultural traits can be genealogically traced from this pool of twenty four we share with our closest relatives. And I have not even included narrative, which humans also share with chimpanzees – as well as any animal that hunts, particularly with others of its social group. Government too would naturally arise in a species that has status differentiation and the need for rules. We could see religion arising in part from things such as status differentiation and narrative leading to language. The development of religion naturally leads to instincts such as divination and religious ritual (combining religion with feeding rituals could do this – as we see in the Christian Eucharist, eating bread and drinking wine). But rather than dwell on these generalities, I should go into more detail on several of these, particularly those uniquely human, and especially those most related to the arts and humanities. All of these emergent cultural universals are combinations of those cultural universals we inherited from the common ancestor we held with chimpanzees and bonobos. And many are specifically derived from combinations with language. Since language is generally considered uniquely human, we must first deal with how we humans came to language.

1 comment:

Jay Moynihan said...

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