Culture is often thought of as something that is learned through socialization and life experiences. However, there are some who argue that we can actually be born into certain aspects of culture. This article will explore different perspectives on whether culture can be innate or if it is entirely learned after birth.
What is culture?
Before examining if culture can be inborn, it is helpful to define what culture is. Culture refers to the shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that characterize a social group or society. This includes things like:
Culture provides a lens through which members of a group understand and interpret their environment. It shapes how people view the world and their own identity. Culture is learned through the socialization process as we grow up within a particular cultural context.
The nurture perspective
The predominant view within sociology and anthropology has been that culture is entirely learned after birth through socialization. According to this nurture perspective, babies are born as a blank slate (tabula rasa) when it comes to culture.
Everything about culture is transmitted through social learning within the family and broader society. As we’re socialized within a particular cultural group, we develop our sense of norms, values, traditions, language, and more.
The nurture view emphasizes how culture is fluid and dynamic. Culture changes over time and can vary dramatically across different groups and settings. If culture was fixed at birth, it would not allow for such diversity and evolution.
Additionally, the nurture perspective highlights how people have agency in shaping, maintaining, and altering culture. As people interact and communicate shared meanings, they actively construct their cultural environments.
The nature perspective
In contrast to the nurture position, some scientists argue for an innate nature perspective on culture. According to this view, babies are not entirely blank slates when it comes to culture.
Rather, humans may be biologically programmed with some cultural predispositions or tendencies. Our genes and human evolution may wire us to be receptive to certain cultural values while resistant to others.
For example, evolutionary psychology suggests we may have inborn mental modules prewired for cultural elements like social norms, language acquisition, or religiosity. Neuroscience indicates certain brain structures may be primed for cultural learning.
The nature view proposes that cultural universals—common elements found in cultures worldwide—may point to innate aspects of human culture. These cultural universals include characteristics like:
|Language||All cultures have language with grammar rules.|
|Art||All cultures produce some form of art and decoration.|
|Music||All cultures include singing and instrumental music.|
|gestures||All cultures use gestures like pointing, clapping, embracing.|
|gift giving||The exchange of gifts occurs in every culture.|
|games||All cultures have forms of structured play i.e. games.|
|imagination||The human capacity to imagine alternative realities appears universal.|
|joke telling||All cultures include joking and humor.|
While specific cultural norms and traditions vary dramatically, some human universals persist. According to the nature view, this reflects our common innate cultural capacity.
A balanced interactionist approach
Increasingly, anthropologists and sociologists are moving toward an interactionist perspective that aims to reconcile the nurture and nature views. This balanced approach acknowledges both cultural universals and diversity as the product of complex interactions between environmental and biological forces.
The interactionist perspective recognizes that while culture is predominantly learned through socialization, human biology can prime us for certain cultural patterns. Our inborn mental faculties interact with social learning mechanisms to absorb the reigning cultural system.
However, culture is not strictly determined by innate predispositions. There is flexibility. For example, while we may have some natural language capability, the specific language we speak is not encoded in our DNA.
Likewise, broad artistic inclination may be innate, but the forms art takes are culturally learned. Or humans may be wired for music, but the genre and style vary across societies.
In summary, the interactionist view acknowledges both nature and nurture influences on culture. Human biological factors may lay the groundwork for cultural universals. But nurture is key for transmitting the diverse cultural specifics.
Evidence for an innate cultural capacity
What evidence supports the idea that human biology primes us for culture? Here are some key findings:
- Newborn imitation – Studies show babies only hours old can already imitate certain facial gestures, indicating an innate imitation capacity key for cultural learning.
- Universal emotions – Basic emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust are expressed similarly across all cultures, suggesting innate emotional processing relevant to cultural interactions.
- Language acquisition – Children universally reach language milestones at similar ages, displaying an innate language learning ability.
- Theory of mind – Around age 4, children everywhere develop theory of mind to understand others’ perspectives, a key skill underlying cultural coordination.
- Sense of fairness – Studies find even young infants have a sense of fairness, justice, and altruism, revealing early emergence of morality important for culture.
Such findings demonstrate that foundational cultural abilities like imitation, language, theory of mind, and morality are part of our innate human nature. This challenges the blank slate view and suggests precultural biases shape our cultural learning.
Examples of proposed innate cultural tendencies
Beyond general cultural capacities present at birth, some theorists argue for more specific innate leanings or biases that guide cultural learning. Some examples include:
Linguist Noam Chomsky proposed our brains have an innate “universal grammar” that predisposes children to follow certain linguistic rules common to all languages. This biological bias constrains the range of possible grammatical structures human languages can take.
Some scientists propose humans may have evolved innate cognitive biases making us prone toward religious or supernatural beliefs across cultures. For instance, we may have a hypersensitive agency detection system primed to discern spirits or gods at work.
Evolutionary psychologists theorize humans may have an innate conformist tendency suited for smoothing group coordination. This means we may be biologically primed to follow social norms, absorb local traditions, and adopt majority behaviors.
Relatedly, we may be innately inclined to identify with ingroups sharing our thoughts, values and habits. Favoring ingroup norms while distrusting outgroups may have conferred survival advantages in our evolutionary past.
Such proposals remain speculative but suggest intriguing ways human nature may orient our broader cultural learning. However, social scientists caution against overstating innate predispositions. Context and learning remain essential for navigating diverse cultural worlds.
Criticisms of the innate culture theory
While evidence indicates some precultural human capacities, many social scientists remain skeptical about specific innate cultural biases. They raise questions like:
- If culture was innate, how could cultures change and adapt so dramatically over time?
- How can a single innate culture exist when human groups develop thousands of radically different cultures?
- If culture was innate, wouldn’t all humans follow cultural universals in the exact same narrow way rather than with such diversity?
- Are supposed cultural universals truly universal? Counterexamples exist like non-religious cultures or groups without music.
- Isn’t culture too complex a phenomenon to be meaningfully reduced to a few genetic biases?
Critics of innate culture theories contend evidence for precise predefined cultural norms programmed into our DNA remains lacking. At most, humans have flexible innate capabilities facilitating cultural learning in diverse environments.
The interplay between innate factors and culture
Most anthropologists today recognize that both innate human nature and cultural learning work together in shaping human culture. Innate abilities provide the foundation, while culture builds on this according to the values, practices, and institutions of a society.
For example, spoken language requires innate language capability combined with the particular language and speech norms learned within a community. Art necessitates both creative cognitive faculties and the artistic styles and motifs of one’s culture.
Morality depends on innate empathic responses and theory of mind as well as the specific ethical rules inculcated through childhood socialization.
So human nature provides the framework of possibilities for culture, but the culture we are raised in activates certain potentials while leaving others dormant. The cultural environment brings innate capabilities to fruition in context-specific ways.
The question of whether human culture is strictly learned or has some innate biological aspects remains scientifically contested.However, an interactionist perspective recognizing both inborn potentials and environmental influences offers a promising path forward.
Human beings appear wired with fundamental capacities that make cultural participation possible. But the myriad diverse forms culture takes worldwide highlight the flexibility of human nature and the primacy of learned social practices.
Culture seems neither completely predetermined at birth nor entirely socialized after birth. Rather, innate human faculties orient us toward certain cultural patterns, while leaving sufficient flexibility for cultures to vary. This reconciliation of nature and nurture best explains both cultural commonalities and diversity worldwide.