The origins of culture

In January 1999, Emory's new Living Links Center for the study of primate evolution sponsored the two-day Origins Symposium, attended by some 1300 people. The excerpts below are taken fromthe portion of the program devoted to "The Origins of Culture

The simplest way to conceive of culture is as an action or an artifact, which is the product of action. That is the phenomena we are comfortable with as observers of behavior [because] we have something fairly concrete to work with. On the other hand, what may be more important than action is the knowledge that underlies that action. This is something to be inferred, but not on a ladder. We as anatomically modern homo sapiens are not on some higher rung looking downward or backwards into the past at our ancestors or at other species who have advanced less far up that ladder. Rather, what we have is an existing bush with growing, twisting, turning endpoints and a whole number of current endpoints of taxonomic status. Cultural primatology, if there is to be such a discipline, needs multidisciplinary viewpoints. I think for better or for ill, culture has escaped the confines of anthropology and is out there on the loose.

--William McGrew, professor of zoology and anthropology, Miami University of Ohio

Extraordinary data that have come out of developmental neuroscience demonstrates in exquisite detail that biology is designed to happen in [the context of culture]. The amount of information required to construct a reasonable, functioning organism, not to mention a smart, social one, just can't be packed into genes. Rather, what genes do is design for capturing information from the environment into the individual development of an organism, so that the combination of biology and place is what sets the individual onto the trajectory of the competent organism. This exciting notion has also opened new views about biology and culture. The old view was that biology is what makes us the same, the universals, and culture is about all of that fabulous icing that goes on top of the biologically constructed cake. Our new views vividly demonstrate that biology can be a major source of diversity. That is, the nervous system is designed to create neurologic diversity and expect the input of the environment.

--Carol Worthman, Samuel Candler Dobbs P rofessor of Anthropology, Emory University, serving as respondent to McGrew


Return to contents page