Are we nature with a layer of culture, or culture all the way through?

Having finished Jonathan Marks' book (see previous post), it's clear that he strongly advocates a science that can deal with its social implications as a form of knowledge. Any science--or scientist (including presumably GIScientists) that tries to confine itself to purely technical issues will not only come a cropper, but will miss the most pertinent aspects of their work.

For example, he says he is sometimes asked by students in his class "whether a human could successfully mate with a chimpanzee?" He says one can take a variety of responses to this (ethical, technical, even humor) but the one he prefers is to ask: assuming we could, what would we do with the baby? Would it be raised as a human or a chimp? How would you protect it/him/her from the spotlight of publicity? Would you send it/him/her to school? What are your responsibilities to that baby?

His point is that: "'Could it be done' is not simply a biochemical question, it is a social and ethical question." And today's scientists have to incorporate that thinking in their work--it's truly part of science.

As an extension of this observation he articulates an understanding of humans as cultural and he rejects attempts to deal with a substrate of purely "natural" qualities. These have historically occurred for example in the idea of the "noble savage" who was closer to nature than "we" are, or the great chain of being where different races were given different evolutionary hierarchies (that is, some "less" evolved). We reject these now, he says, but have instead replaced it with another being who supposedly is "man minus culture;" namely the chimpanzee.

The other view you sometimes see articulated is that we are "natural" creatures with an overlay of culture. This comes up a lot and was widely popularized in the 1990s by Camille Paglia's book Sexual Personae (1990) in which she argued for this position. It also comes up sometimes even among well-meaning anthropologists who want to separate race into a (now rejected) genetic component and a socio-cultural or political component. People confuse the two, they say. Yes but we have to be careful here. Biology or a gene by itself has no meaning, but when we study it we do so in a system of meaning (science). If you look for a gene for something (left-handedness, say) you might find one, but that doesn't explain the meaning of left-handedness eg., what to do about it. Genetics certainly has a cultural component in this sense.

This is what his book is about. He says that just because we share say 98% of our genes with chimps doesn't mean that we are chimps. We share about 40% of our genes with fish, but that doesn't make us fish-like. And so it's wrong to think of chimpanzees as "like us, only without the culture." Culture is about using symbolic systems in a widespread way.

Systems such as language and maps.

So a study of maps without the culture is not really a study at all, certainly not a good study.

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