From Biology to Culture

A relation generative of man is nothing other than the affective, sense-giving relation of our

animal forebears, in the first instance, toward one another. (Mikhailov 2001: 26)

A key question for Vygotsky was that of the relationship between biology and culture, which simultaneously is the question of the relationship between body and mind (respectively). We note above that there are two reductive tendencies, which already existed in Vygotsky’s days and which were the object of his critique. One tendency reduces the higher psychological functions (i.e., cultural characteristics) to biology, one example being Piaget’s theory of cognitive development that is modeled on biology and biological processes, including adaptation and assimilation. The other tendency is to reduce biological aspects to culture, which can be found in all of those theories that attempt to explain the entirety of psychological functions by means of cultural processes. Vygotsky, however, critiques not only these two forms of reductionism but also any other attempt in which biology and culture are seen to exist in parallel. In his later texts, he is working instead towards a developmental theory where there is only one evolving phenomenon, which, at a point in its history, transitions from having biology to having culture as the dominant and determining aspect of the {organism I environment} system. Biology and culture are then but two manifestations (expressions) of the same phenomenon, whether we investigate the development of our human species during anthropogenesis (phylogenesis) or the development of the individual during ontogenesis.11

Vygotsky, as a cultural-historical psychologist, accepts and takes as the starting point the existence and dominance of culture in the determination of human life processes, thereby leaving it to Marxist anthropology to answer the question when and how culture became dominant in the concomitant process of anthropogenesis. Other Marxist psychologists, in the wake of Leont’ev, provided an early sketch of how such a transition might have occurred (e.g. Holzkamp 1983). In that sketch, the evolutionary trajectory exhibits the same pattern that we describe above, where culture becomes a new function in the determination of the life history of the human species. Culture initially is a subordinate function and, at some point and due to a rather rapid change in the environment, leads to the selection of culture as the characteristic of a new developmental trajectory. To better understand that crucial shift that marks the beginning of human history, we sketch in this section some of the findings from present-day research among the species closest to humans in the classification of life: the great apes.

Among the key characteristics of human behavior is the use of tools. However, tool use in itself cannot be the key to distinguish humans from other animals. Tool use has been reported also among the great apes, where chimpanzees and orangutans fashion branches to “fish” for ants and termites or to extract seeds from hard- to-open seed cases. Even among the crows one can find tool use; and the New Caledonian crow is particularly apt in chaining the use of multiple tools to reach a food item. In most of the reported cases, the animals pick up the material, fashion a tool, use it, and finally drop it when it is no longer needed. However, in one chimpanzee culture, where stones are used to crack a particular kind of nut, these are carried around from one site with a suitable anvil rock to another where it will be finally used for the purpose of cracking nuts (Mercader et al. 2002). That is, there is a form of Intentionalityi whereby the future use of the tool in a different site is anticipated.

Another feature that characterizes human behavior is the division of labor, such as when human hunting groups divide up into those with guns and those with dogs or sticks chasing the prey out of hiding (“beaters”). However, such division of labor with strict role specialization also has been reported among other species, including chimpanzees hunting colobus monkeys or bottlenose dolphins hunting their prey (Gilby and Connor 2010). The beaters push the prey towards the hunters, and, when the prey has been killed, both killers and chasers share in the meal. This is a form of exchange behavior—exchange, together with production, consumption, and distribution, being one of the fundamental activities of humans (Marx and Engels 1983)—where a favor or form of labor is exchanged for access to food. Other forms of exchanges exist, for example, in the exchange of food for sex with unrelated females, a behavior that also has been shown to exist among human hunter-gather societies (Gomez and Boesch 2009). [1]

The identification of culture requires indices for the presence ofbehaviors in one or more populations and the concurrent absence of these behaviors in other populations within the species. Indices for the presence of culture that have been used in the literature include: (a) labels, for example, ways of marking the presence of certain food items or predators; (b) signals, for example, using leaves in front of the mouth to amplify sounds and specific song dialects; (c) skills, including those for using natural objects as tools for specific purposes, such as fishing for ants, termites, or seeds; and (d) symbols, such as arbitrary sounds that appear in specific situations, including the consistent vocalization that can be found in certain orangutan populations but are absent in others (van Schaik et al. 2003). The use of such labels, signals, skills, and symbols is perpetuated within groups, as a result of living in the society. New members to the society, while inheriting certain biological capacities, come to use these features only as part of their participation in the group. Rudiments of culture that satisfy all these requirements have been identified among the orangutan and the chimpanzees (e.g. Whiten et al. 1999).

The natural scientific studies concerned with culture among the orangutan and chimpanzees tend to theorize the situation in this way: If there is an individual who uses a particular label, signal, tool, skill, or symbol, then the offspring can copy it. What makes special those populations where cultural behaviors are observed is the fact that they live in groups, which increases the density of individuals. This allows offspring of less capable individuals to imitate the behaviors of more competent others that are not their mothers. The result is the view of a collection of individuals, where some learn by imitating others, which then becomes an instance of something referred to as “socially learned.” This account, however, portrays a model of cultural transfer from individual to individual, where all the uses and related skills are individual. There is nothing specifically and irreducible social about these animal populations as described in the natural sciences. Culture, for Vygotsky, as for sociologists such as E. Durkheim, cannot be reduced to the sum of its individual parts. Such studies of culture among primates, therefore, are not actually cultural in the sense that Vygotsky takes this to be. We observe this difference especially when he writes that “any higher psychological function ... was the social relation between two people” (Vygotsky 1989: 56), that the “relation between higher psychological functions was at one time a physical relation between people” (1989: 56), and that “development proceeds ... toward individualization of social functions” (1989: 61). In these descriptions, there is a social relation; and it is a social relation that eventually shows up as a higher psychological function. The process is not one of individuals copying individuals, but one of individuals exhibiting behavior that exists in the group as a form of relation between people. In this way, the behavior is truly social (and cultural).

The description closest to Vygotsky’s position comes from a study of mother- infant relations among bonobo (chimpanzees), the genetically closest relative of our species (Hutchins and Johnson 2009). That study documents that the bonobo exhibit forms of stabilized (“frozen”) movements that have some but not all the characteristics of language. The particular movement studied is—consistent with the quotation that opens this section—the carrying activity in which mothers and infants engage in a

Evolution of the letter D from symbols standing for the sound /d/

Fig. 2.5 Evolution of the letter D from symbols standing for the sound /d/. (a) Egyptian (3000 BC). (b) Kemetic (3200 BC). (c) Semetic (1500 BC). Sinai hieroglyphic. (d) Phoenician (1100 BC) and early Hebrew (~1000 BC). (e) Greek (800-600 BC). (f) Latin (0 AD). (g) Modern

coordinated way. That is, mothers do not just pick up the infant but the infant itself moves in the direction of meeting the requirements for being carried. Some of these movements come to be frozen into gestures, such as when the infant leans back and reaches with its arm in a particular way that tends to lead to a ventral carry. That is, what had started out as part of a pickup movement, when frozen, becomes a signal for the mother.[2] Importantly, the lean back never is observed in, and therefore copied from, the mother. A movement segment that has been part of the mother-infant relation, when frozen and displayed by the infant standing alone, has become a sign that the infant uses to get picked up by the mother. Here, it is an aspect of the affective relation, a movement segment in the pick-up and carrying behavior, that is the origin of the subsequently observed higher function of signaling the desire to be picked up and carried.

We observe such a progression in the development of written language, too, where iconic representations of things that populate the material world become first associated with a sound. Later, after some modifications, these representations turn into abstracted and abstract signs that no longer resemble the things that they originally stood for. Consider, for example, the Kemetic, Semetic, Phoenician, and Hebrew sign standing for daleth, door. It eventually, through progressive changes, turned into our letter “D” (Fig. 2.5). That is, the letter arose from the symbol for door, the word of which starts with a sound /d/.[3] In a similar way, the letter A arose from the symbol for an ox head (ox=aleph), which, after begin rotated so that the horns pointed downward, turned into the letter alpha and our modern A.

In the world of our nearest relatives, we find cultural features and tool use similar to early humans, the remains of which were found in Oldowan sites (Mercader et al. 2002). Most hypotheses about anthropogenesis agree that changes in climate pushed the proto-humans from the forest habitat out into the savannah. This change in environment constituted sufficient pressure that provided those groups with advantages that were drawing from and extending existing capacities, such as tool use and innovation or other, survival enhancing, culturally perpetuated ways of being. There is then a similar changeover in dominance of the existing {individual I environment} to new functional relations in which cultural aspects become dominant that heretofore were only minor functions. Here, then, cultural features provided an advantage in biological evolution . The functional turnover brought about a new context for development, both cultural and biological, such as when extended tool use constitutes a favorable context for the development of dexterity; or when increased use of symbols that have arisen from frozen movements constitute a context for the development of the brain.

With the emergence of culture as the main determinant of human life, biology is not abandoned; it just takes a lesser role. In early human development, cultural and biological processes mutually affect each other precisely because the former emerged and unfolded as a form of the latter. Biology never disappears, as can be seen from its deep integration in some cultural phenomena such as sports, where winning and losing depend on biological and cultural characteristics of the athlete simultaneously, and both shape the expression of each other (e.g. the role of motivation and affect in changes of the physical body through training, the role of the body in affect and the production of motivation).

  • [1] uWe do not at all imply reference to the “ontogenesis repeats phylogenesis” hypothesis.
  • [2] In Chap. 12 we provide evidence of such a “freezing” of activity-related movements into symbolic gestures during school science activities.
  • [3] The sound notation /d/ is that used by the International Phonetics Association.
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