Defining Culture

Culture is a slippery concept to define. Many social scientists today refer to a formulation by the nineteenth century English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, who said “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” At least two things jump out at me when I read that quotation. Firstly, that Tylor equated culture with civilization, and secondly that he considered nearly anything people do to be “culture”.

All extant hunter-gatherer groups have some “capabilities and habits” that allow people to fit in as members of those societies. Archaeological evidence gives us no reason to believe that earlier hunter-gatherer tribes failed to have them as well. Quite to the contrary, archaeology has provided plenty of evidence to suggest that Stone Age people spent a lot of time identifying with their groups. We see this evidence in both the similarities and differences that exist in burials, artwork, and artifacts around the world, and in the echoes of languages that still exist. It seems contrary to modern scientific understanding to suggest that hunter-gatherer groups don’t have their own cultures. But that was not what Tylor intended. Tylor was the first person to insist that hunter-gatherers had their own cultures, and their own forms of “civilization”, based on what he called the “uniformity” of human thought. It was a remarkably enlightened attitude for a person living at the height of the xenogamous British Empire.

Tylor’s concept of civilization differs from the one used elsewhere in this book. Elsewhere we will talk about civilization beginning with settled agriculture. Tylor, by contrast, rightly understood human development as a continuous searching for successful strategies. Agriculture was just one possible approach to survival. It just happened to be one that allowed its practitioners to outbreed those hunter-gatherers who stayed with the old ways. It was natural for Tylor to suggest from his perspective that civilization and culture are the same thing. Tylor’s civilization is nothing more (or less) than the cultural tools used by any particular group.

It is interesting that Tylor included laws in his definition of culture. Laws are now the primary tools of secular, Western governments today to encourage large-scale cooperation. It would be illegal for someone at my coffee shop to assault me, either physically or verbally. A policeman would readily intervene in an altercation if called. That fact deters most people, most of the time, from taking advantage of strangers.

There are other tools in our cultural toolbox. Most modern religions teach the benefit of cooperation, as do the customs passed down from parents to children, and reinforced in schools. Surprisingly, the combination of laws, beliefs, and custom can do a pretty good job at creating peaceful large-scale societies.

The successes of law do not come as cheaply as we might imagine. Although we have successfully used laws to mostly keep strangers from abusing each other, we need to have a lot of them. It no longer seems possible for anyone to determine exactly how many laws, or government regulations, exist in the United States today. We have federal laws, binding court decisions, and regulations. We have more at the state, territory, Native American tribe, and local levels. This is of course not to mention corporate regulations, or family rules. One estimate claims some millions of federal laws alone, with as many as forty thousand changes each year. A reference librarian at the US Library of Congress claimed in 2013, “We are frequently asked to estimate the number of federal laws in force. However, trying to tally this number is nearly impossible.”

Determining the laws appropriate to a given situation is often a first step in determining a course of action. One might consult a lawyer, or an accountant, or a policeman, or a county clerk. The scale of our societies demand such binding rules. We have accepted their complication as the price for living relatively peacefully with many others. Where they fail, the state uses fines, imprisonment, or forced service to punish offenders, all in an attempt keep individuals from carrying out their own justice.

Not all modern societies are peaceful, nor safe. I would happily turn my back on strangers in most parts of Japan, Australia, or Canada. I would have no trouble in most of India. But I would not risk it in the bus station in downtown Newark, New Jersey, any more than I would in the public portions of the Philippines, Columbia, Egypt, or Italy. “Culture” is as variant as it is ill-defined. Laws intertwine deeply with those other, softer, concepts of belief, morals, customs, and religion to create a complex tapestry of possibility.

In place of Tylor’s definition, I personally tend to prefer an almost throw-away line from anthropologists Ernest Schusky and Patrick Culbert: “Culture… includes all the things that we learn from other people.” That seems to sum up the complexities that we encounter when attempting to discuss culture, and yet gets to its underlying simplicity. We are born with a series of instincts, and reflexive actions. We have biases. We will react in many predictable ways, and at the same time have deep physiological structures that ensure that our behavior varies. We constantly learn from our sensory inputs, from the environment. But culture consists of all the things we learn from other people.

It is possible to refine the definition of culture even farther by looking at the relationship between culture and evolution. It was evolution that provided us our natural relationships to one another, and adapted us to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It was culture that allowed us to adapt more rapidly than evolution ever could to the challenges posed by the end of the last ice age.

Culture and evolution share many key features. A creature competes for resources, and looks for opportunities to create offspring. The offspring aren’t perfect copies. Random changes, mutations, creep into the copying process. This is Darwin’s “descent with modification.” Similarly, cultural ideas compete to be accepted by people. At each stage they are heard, and perhaps modified by the receiver’s understanding. Cultural ideas also undergo a version of descent with modification. Cultural ideas are frequently called “memes”, a word first proposed by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to indicate a unit of cultural inheritance, analogous to a gene as the unit of physical inheritance.

More importantly to our story, culture and evolution are both fundamentally search algorithms. Culture and evolution are two ways to explore a space of possibilities to search for successful strategies. The lucky ones win, and the less fortunate lose. Mutations to genes allow natural experiments; each mutation is thrown up against the wall of Nature to see if it sticks. Planting and praying were two of probably many attempts to change the game faster than evolution could. Our ancestors passed their lessons to their children, which allowed them to adapt more quickly than waiting for a successful mutation.

Evolution enabled us to have the ability to create culture. Evolution endowed us with the ability to learn and, critically, to pass down our learning to our descendants. No other species does this as well as we do. This is our species’ super power. Evolutionary biologists call the advantages that we receive from passing down learning the Baldwin Effect, named after American psychologist James Mark Baldwin. Baldwin was the first to note that the ability to pass down learning could increase the chances for survival of a species. Planting could not have occurred without many generations of accumulated knowledge. Neither could prayer. Neither idea is simplistic enough to have occurred to a single individual in its complete form.

It is the collection of all of our good ideas over generations that we call culture. Without the Baldwin Effect, we would be as stuck as any other animal that needs to rely solely upon instinct, or the collection of tricks learned in a single lifetime. Our ability to pass down information to our descendants allows culture to build up generation after generation, and to morph to fit new circumstances. We can discuss necessary changes, and take different actions. It is in this way that the first world United States culture emerged from colonial backwater, through the Industrial Revolution, to the victories of World War II, the Internet, and up to today. Few believe that our culture today is much like the early United States, when slavery was legal, native Americans were a military threat, and the height of technological development was the ability of a country to build a sailing ship.

The Baldwin Effect can help us to refine our definition of culture. Culture is what we learn from other people, and pass on to others. It is by this means that a large group can come to define itself.


  • Edward Burnett Tylor. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. 2nd ed., 2 vols., John Murray, London, 1873, pp. 1.
  • Ernest Lester Schusky and T. Patrick Culbert. Introducing Culture. Prentice Hall College Div, 1987, pp. 35.
  • J.M. Baldwin. “A new factor in evolution” in American Naturalist, vol 30, 1896, pp. 441-451.
  • Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene. 2 ed., Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 192.

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