Cultural Animal Definition
Cultural animal is a term used to refer to human beings. The core idea is that human beings differ from other animals in the extent to which they create, sustain, and participate in culture.
There are hundreds of definitions of culture. However, there are several main themes in understanding what culture is. Culture refers to learned behavior rather than innate predispositions. Culture is not created or owned by a specific person but rather requires a group, usually a large group. (You cannot have culture by yourself.) Crucially, a culture must reproduce itself, so it includes some means by which it is passed down from one generation to another. Culture consists of shared ideas and shared ways of doing things. Thus, American culture includes shared values such as freedom and democracy, and it also includes ways of doing things, such as how to get a job, get food, vote, and pay taxes. Cultures generally include organized frameworks that allow people to live together. For that to happen, cultures must find ways to satisfy basic human needs, such as for food, water, shelter, and safety.
Thus, to call humans cultural animals is to say that human beings almost always prefer to live in groups that have these properties. They are organized. They collect and share information, including passing on what they have learned to the next generation. They rely on the group to help them get what they need to live. Through this cooperation and learning, members of the group come to hold common beliefs and values and to do things in similar ways.
Cultural Animal Context and Importance
Social psychology has developed over the decades by studying one slice of behavior at a time. Periodically, its thinkers wonder how to put all these little bits of information together to construct a broad, coherent understanding of human nature, which is to say, what kind of creatures human beings are. This sort of question lurks in the background of nearly all the work that seeks to understand people: Are they good or evil? Are they products of their environment? Do they have free will? What do they mainly want? How does the human mind work, and how did it get to be that way?
Social psychologists have long responded to questions about human nature by saying that humans are social animals. The “social animal” phrase was coined by Aristotle and has been preserved in an often-updated book by Eliot Aronson. Its central idea is that people are, by nature, motivated to be with other people, including forming relationships with them, working with them, and playing with them.
The cultural animal view takes a large step beyond the social animal view. It agrees that humans are social animals, but in that respect they are not all that different from a great many other social animals—from ants and birds to wolves and zebras. Hence, if we want to understand what is special about human beings, indeed understand what makes us human, we must go beyond the social animal idea, correct though it is.
Culture is a better way of being social. It has made possible the great achievements and progress that humankind has seen across its history. Social animals may work together toward common goals and copy each other’s successful behaviors, but without a culture to store information and transmit it to others, every generation starts over from the beginning. Without culture, each new generation of human beings would have to start over too, such as figuring out how to find food and make fire. Culture allows each new generation to inherit what its parents knew and then, perhaps, to add to that stock of knowledge. Cooking, medical technology, automobile travel, electrical appliances, and indoor plumbing all reflect the accumulation of knowledge across generations and hence the benefits of culture.
Cultural Animal Evidence
The theory that humans are cultural animals is not something that can be easily proven or disproved. It is not a conclusion from a laboratory study. Rather, it is a broad theory that can be used to explain many aspects of human behavior. The usefulness of such grand theories is found not in whether they can be tested experimentally but rather in how many different ideas and observations they can make sense of together and how few seem to contradict them. The facts that people everywhere live in groups, use language, socialize their children, and share information are consistent with the view of humans as cultural animals. Those observations fit but do not prove that humans are cultural animals. Still, if the opposite patterns were true (e.g., if people generally refused to share information or cooperate, learned language only reluctantly and under pressure, and left their children to fend for themselves), then it would be implausible to say people are cultural animals.
Cultural Animal Implications
Researchers who study animals say that many of them have the beginnings of culture, such as if they learn how to get food in a certain way and then their children copy them. However, these are tiny bits and beginnings, whereas humans rely on culture in almost everything they do. For example, most animals get their own food directly from nature and make or find their own nests or other shelters, whereas most likely you have hardly ever hunted your own food, sewn your own clothes, or built your home with your own hands.
The cultural animal view holds that what makes people unique, and what makes us human, can be found in the special traits that make culture possible. These start with the capacity to use language. They include the complex ways people think and make decisions and the way people understand each other’s emotions and goals.
A long tradition in Western thought has focused on the conflict between the individual and society, sometimes viewing the individual as a victim of powerful, impersonal social forces and proposing that people would be better off if they could escape from society. The cultural animal view, in contrast, holds that humans are designed, by nature, precisely to live and work in a cultural society. Although cultures are far from perfect and can be quite oppressive, the option of living alone in the forest is not to be taken seriously for the bulk of humanity, because human nature is far better suited to cultural life. We must strive to make society better rather than to escape from it. Despite its shortcomings and problems, culture has been a remarkable success when judged in biological terms: Unlike the other great apes, humans have multiplied, spread out to live in a wide assortment of lands and climates, and accumulated the knowledge of how to enable individuals to live two or three times as long as their ancestors.
- Aronson, E. (2004). The social animal (9th ed.). New York: Worth.
- Baumeister, R. F. (2005). The cultural animal: Human nature, meaning, and social life. New York: Oxford University Press.