SYMPOSIUM ON THE QUESTION "HOW IS CULTURE BIOLOGICAL?" ~ Six Essays and Discussions: Essay # 6, by Lionel Tiger, "Culture As Homeostatic Mechanism"


The evolved and adapted features of human nature regulate cultural variation the way a thermostat regulates temperature. Culture functions to adjust external circumstances to the relatively stable properties of human physiology and motivation.

Responses by Joseph Carroll and Robert Karl Stonjek


Lionel Tiger

Culture as Homeostatic Mechanism

Normal human body temperature is by and large 98.6 degrees. To maintain relative comfort given this biological fact, people wear endlessly inventive clothes and build structures from igloos to Buckingham Palace to airconditioned apartments 40 stories above the heat and snow. Very simply, human cultural variation is an equivalent homeostatic mechanism in an endlessly variable set of social, climatic, cultural, historical, philosophical, etc. conditions to retain the equivalent of 98.6 which is genomically mediated, modulated, and driven human biology.

To return with some rue to an endlessly ignored but nonetheless sturdy idea, we are dealing here with the biogrammar which Fox and I in our The Imperial Animal of 1971 asserted was the equivalent of the linguistic grammar which Chomsky hypothesized kids had to be born with because they were otherwise too stupid to learn complex languages. Language being relatively recent, it seemed reasonable that older more swoopy behavioral systems such as reproduction and production, social bonding, kinship, and pleasure-seeking should also serve to protect and enhance hominid commonality.

The notion that culture and biology oppose each other is an unfortunate version of religious irritability as described in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by the self-ethnographer James Joyce as well as the Freudian cosmos of a dusky sultry unreliable id lurking in super-ego society to produce a well- dressed but compromised sales manager. Really now! Surely nature doesn’t work against itself that way in distinct species. There’s enough to worry about with all them other species and forces out there which seem set upon disturbing a quiet evening at home or noisy one elsewhere.

Cultural variation remains biological just as variations on Bach or Beiderbecke remain permanent music.



To Lionel Tiger

1. Joseph Carroll’s Response to Lionel Tiger

The idea of a “biogrammar” laid out in The Imperial Animal has not been neglected altogether.  Bob Storey makes it a key feature of his pioneering effort to bring evolutionary thinking to bear on literature (Mimesis and the Human Animal, 1996). The early sociobiologists and evolutionary anthropologists (E. O. Wilson, Richard Alexander, Napoleon Chagnon, Tiger and Fox, et al.) took a systemic view of human nature. They focused on survival and reproduction, hence on the reproductive cycle. The early “evolutionary psychologists” (Symons, Tooby and Cosmides, Pinker, et al.) distinguished themselves from the sociobiologists by emphasizing “proximate mechanisms.” They made a sharp distinction between “inclusive fitness” as the “ultimate” regulative principle in evolution and the “proximate mechanisms” that in ancestral environments produced fitness. They sometimes lost sight of the systemic view and got lost in the details of an open-ended lists of “modules.” In recent years, “human life history theory” (Hillard Kaplan, Bobbi Low, Steven Gangestad, et al.) have been re-instituting a systemic understanding of human nature. Human life history theory keeps a salutary focus on the  linkages among the “behavioral systems” that produce the “biogrammar.”

The biogrammar holds culture on a “leash,” in E. O. Wilson’s phrase, but culture isn’t just on the receiving end of biology. Richard Wrangham has made a compelling case that cooking—a cultural technology—has fundamentally altered the trajectory of human evolution, influencing gross anatomy and physiology, and providing a primary cause for the growth of the brain.  The larger brain produces more culture: more technology and the arts and sciences. Gene-culture co-evolution is a major part of the story. But yes, the basic animal and social functions are the soil out of which culture grows. Culture does not stand apart from them.

2. Robert Karl Stonjek’s Response to Lionel Tiger

Needing to wear clothes in an environment where conspecifics didn’t have to would have been disadvantageous—they would have been like disabled people who required extra attention just to survive.  It requires time and effort to prepare and maintain even the crudest form of clothing.

But being predisposed toward the wearing of clothes would have made such people capable of withstanding much colder climates, thus environmental plasticity would lead to allopathic speciation where only those who have the new clothes wearing predisposition can survive in the new environments.  Using less energy for personal heating would result in less loss of fat during winter and so a slightly lower nutritional requirement.

It is likely that the roots of all abstract thinking and the ability to plan for the future that comes with it would have occurred together.  Tools, protolanguage (gesture, mime, prosodic vocal utterances etc), cooperative hunting and so on would have given the new variation an ability to explore and populate new environments.

The number of environmental specifications required for human survival, such as those relating to the weather, is greatly reduced when individuals control their own micro-environments, e.g., so as to keep their body temperature at 98.6°F, or in my case, 97°F, by wearing clothes, building shelters, and, later, controlling fire.

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