Culture and the Universality of Human Nature

Much of the modern debate about ‘nature versus nurture’ surrounds the question of the origin of individual traits – in what ways do people differ, and to what extent can these differences be said to be inherited? However, an aspect that is often overlooked is how traits or aspects of an individual that are without doubt learned, such as their culture or faith, may be innate. This is less of a question of inheriting the culture of ones’ parents through their genetics, or that culture itself is ingrained to the genetic makeup of each cultural group– there is little question that such a thing is possible– but more a question of how much of what we call ‘culture’ exists in all of us.

There are some commonalities across almost all cultures, if not every single culture. The most commonly discussed of these shared traits is perhaps traditional gender roles throughout the world, and how, in most societies, women and men have different roles in society, and these roles are usually similar regardless of the society in question (e.g. the women raise children, men fight). This may suggest a natural order of gender roles - males and females of different species often perform different roles, and so it may be safe to assume the same is the case for humans.

More complicated social structures also seem to have cross-cultural presence. The most obvious, of course, is religion – every documented society from all recorded history has had some sort of religious practice, either possessing their own local religious tradition or being part of a broader, multi-cultural faith. To what extent this has a genetic component is, of course, contested, but the presence of a ‘God gene’, which would allow for every group of humans to develop some understanding of their place in the world, has been argued for by geneticists such as Dean Hamer. Social institutions like marriage are also near-universal, which suggests that the social contract created through marriage stems from a universal human desire for such a thing. Even in the modern West, with ceremonies of marriage becoming less common, there is still a desire for most people to have long-term relationships with their sexual partners, suggesting something common and inherent.

None of these examples clearly demonstrate any ‘common culture’, however. There are aspects of traditional gender roles that must be to some extent biologically derived, but as time marches ever onward, many of these roles are being worn away, and the distinctions often drawn between the sexes are, in many parts of the world, fading. In any case, there are and have been matriarchal societies, and societies in which gender division was much weaker. There are undeniably biological differences between males and females, but to what extent there can be said to be an inherent desire to treat the opposite sex differently is a different question.

Religious adherence, particularly in the western world, is declining as well, and many atheists would argue that religion does not stem from a natural desire to believe in a god, but rather a misguided desire to understand the world around us, with religion being our ancestors’ ‘best guess’. Marriage as an institution, whilst nearly universal, is not by any means uniform; some cultures practice strict monogamy, whereas in others polygamy is allowed or even encouraged. In some cultures, marriages are for life and breaking them is extraordinarily difficult, whereas in others it is far simpler. Perhaps the idea that a child raised by two parents is the optimum, and thus marriage is almost a by-product of several natural human inclinations, but is not in itself natural.The argument for the inherent and common values of world cultures is somewhat diminished by the emergence of ‘culture-less’ societies, where traditional practices and beliefs are pushed aside, suggesting that humans are perfectly capable, and maybe always have been, of living without these views. Culture is shaped, to a large extent, by the environment in which people live, both in terms of its geography and the specific society. To an extent, cultures develop out of almost a ‘siege mentality’ – in order to protect ourselves, we must join together and form a common cause, a common culture. When the pressures on societies diminish, as they have in the relative safety and insulation of much of the modern world, the need to cling to societal values declines; this suggests that cultural values are less inherent, but more inherently important, at least to societies that need unity. When the need for unity dissipates, perhaps the culture must also dissipate?

This brings us to a different, but equally important question of how different cultures view the question of nature and nurture. How much of who we are do different religious and cultural traditions ascribe to our inherent nature? There is a concept in certain theological and philosophical traditions of an ‘innate’ sense of morality. One proponent of this was René Descartes, who argued that humans at birth are not a ‘blank slate’, but instead have inherent, God-given understandings of right and wrong. This is common also in Islamic tradition; humans, according to Islam, have an inherent inclination towards tawhid, oneness with a single, monotheistic conception of God. There is also an inherent desire for wealth and earthly pleasures, which can interfere with this desire for tawhid, but it is still a powerful force. The Dharmic conception of morality is in some ways similar but takes a somewhat unique approach. In Hindu, Buddhist and Jain tradition, there is an ‘innate’ understanding of right and wrong, and indeed of the nature of the world, but this can only be accessed through the process of reaching enlightenment, of fully embracing and comprehending your own nature – in other words, innate knowledge that can only be accessed through the search for self-knowledge or self-understanding.

Understanding the different cultural approaches to the debate on how much of our ‘being’ comes solely from our existence allows us to acknowledge just what is meant by the term ‘nature’ in this debate. It does not solely refer to the traits inherited specifically from our parents, but more broadly to what is part of all human beings regardless of parentage. The question of the innate utility of culture itself is key to understanding a wider debate about the relevance of culture and traditions themselves – if there is a genetic, biological component to cultural traditions, as there may well be, perhaps we should take them more seriously than we currently do.

This article was written by Benjamin Kumar Morris