That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior

That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior

That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior

That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior

Synopsis

This work attempts to develop a scientific study of human behaviour that is at once evolutionary and cultural. It deals with key issues such as how culture is best defined and how it influences human behaviour.

Excerpt

This book had its start, in a sense, as a high-school term paper. An assignment in my eleventh grade Basic Composition class was to write a research paper on the career of my choice. I chose to write about being an anthropologist. I still am not sure where I got the idea that I might like to be an anthropologist. Perhaps it was from my family's emphasis on travel and cross- cultural education. Perhaps it was the fascinating knickknacks and beautiful rugs that filled the house of a friend whose father was an anthropologist. Whatever its source, my fascination with behavior and cultural diversity started at an early age, and I devoured the few anthropology books in my local library.

For reasons that also go back to my high-school days of the late 1970s, cultural anthropology, the discipline I love, is in trouble. One of my other great intellectual passions at that time was biology, particularly the story of evolution, and I was understandably thrilled when, in the mid-1970s, these two areas of interest--culture and biology--seemed to be converging. 1975 saw the publication ofE. O. Wilson landmark Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, followed closely in 1976 byRichard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. I clearly recall the huge display devoted to Wilson's book at the neighborhood bookstore and excitedly showing a copy of the book to my biology teacher. Dawkins' book was fascinating to me as well, and I headed for college certain that professional cultural anthropologists would share my enthusiasm for these new ideas from evolutionary biology, which promised to shed light on so many issues of importance to them.

I was wrong. What I did not realize at the time was that the discipline of cultural anthropology, along with the rest of the social sciences, had invested many decades in developing its approach to human affairs in isolation from biology. For Wilson, Dawkins, and a few renegade anthropologists suddenly to propose that biology was more important--and, by implication, that culture was less important--than they had thought was shocking, insulting, and even dangerous in the eyes of most cultural anthropologists. One prominent cultural anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins of the University of Chicago . . .

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