By Roger Scruton, NYT, Feb 24 2012
For much of the 20th century, social scientists held that human life is a single biological phenomenon, which flows through the channels made by culture, so as to acquire separate forms. Each society passes on the culture that defines it. And the most important aspects of culture – religion, rites of passage and law – both unify the people who adhere to them and divide those people from everyone else.
More recently, evolutionary psychologists have begun to question that approach. Although you can explain the culture of a tribe as an inherited possession, they suggested, this does not explain how culture came to be in the first place.
What is it that endows culture with its stability and function? In response to that question, the opinion began to grow that culture does not provide the ultimate explanation of any significant human trait, not even the trait of cultural diversity. It is not simply that there are extraordinary constants among cultures: gender roles, incest taboos, warfare.
The answer given by evolutionary psychologists is that culture is an adaptation, which exists because it conferred a reproductive advantage on our hunter-gatherer ancestors. According to this view, many of the diverse customs that the standard social science model attributes to nurture are local variations of attributes acquired 70 or more millennia ago, during the Pleistocene Age, and now ‘hard-wired in the brain’. Continue reading