The distinction between ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ crops up in many discussions about who we are, what we should do or where we are going. Whether we talk about sex or marriage, nudity or abortion, homosexuality, masturbation or incest, birth control or prostitution, or the difference between the sexes, there’s always someone who says that this or that is not natural but cultural, or the other way round.
Culture as good
Everyone agrees that human culture has developed enormously in the relatively short period we have been on this earth. We have language, art, religion, science and philosophy, we know our history and think about the future. We are driven by the urge to make things better: discover fire and the wheel, cure illnesses, improve education, invent things to make life more enjoyable. Culture is: elevators, air-conditioning, Brahms on CD, democracy. It is champagne, scented toilet paper, cell phones, antibiotics, playing chess on the internet. Culture is also associated with human freedom to choose, to make political decisions, to plan the future, to distinguish between good and bad, ugly and beautiful, between sensible reason and blind stupid urges. And we tend to think of these ‘cultural’ or ‘human’ qualities as ‘good’ compared with the brutal and blind forces of ‘nature’.
This way of looking at ‘culture’ sets ‘man’ above ‘nature’.
Culture as bad
There is also a negative association with ‘culture’: chemical industry, pollution, extinction of species, global warming, deforestation; culture as a harness of behavioural codes and morality that stand in the way of ‘natural’ (meaning ‘spontaneous’) interaction; culture as indoctrination, economic inequality, tasteless fruit, alienation, heroin addiction, child pornography, sprawling slums in megacities, runamay technology,and almost anything else that people can feel uncomfortable about when they criticize human society in general or persons or institutions in particular. This discomfort about, or rather within, human culture sees ‘nature’ as pure and good.
Nature, we say, soothes, enchants and relaxes us, it absorbs the stress and worries of our ‘unnatural’ overbusy life. On our holidays we enjoy the great outdoors, the open beach along the changeless ocean, the beauty of majestic mountains and canyons, waterfalls and forests, the fresh clean air and water of ‘unspoilt’ places.
Nature & culture
Both views, or rather experiences and moods, seem to be in agreement that nature and culture are more or less opposed to each other. Yet most people will admit that humans are also natural creatures and that natural life is full of culture: animals build beautifully decorated nests, they make music, teach each other new behavior in new circumstances, they communicate and play.
People have created an explosive abundance of culture in the last millennia, and increasingly in the last couple of centuries, but the motor behind that development is also in our nature. We are very similar to our ancestors of 10,000 years ago, and it is the combination of human nature and technological progress that create a tension that continues to build up.
In general it may be said that the sexual system has remained largely in place, which means that we live as if our family, sexual partner, having children and the regulation of lust are the only tangible reality of every day, even though we are confronted, on television, with all the negative aspects of our present evolutionary situation. The environmental disaster, for example, is the result of overpopulation, which is the consequence of our natural and unquestioned urge to reproduce and form families. Wars can likewise be seen as the consequence of our natural group aggression, the tendency to create enemies, defend territories, seek revenge. Injustice, inequality and limitation of freedom are caused by the natural tendency to think of the family first and pass on genes, attitudes, traditions, and shortsighted self-interest to the next generation.
To sum up: our nature – the individual and group characteristics we have developed in the course of evolution – are no longer suited to the environment we have created.
To understand the many varieties of human cultural expression, it may be useful to realize how much our nature is the mainstring of our culture, which may also help to put in perspective the idea of humans having been created essentially different from all other species. Rather, we are 99% the same as the rest of creation. We can only be essentially different every time we choose the ‘human’ pathway to the future.