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Cultural Animals

We are significantly the product of the social context within which we were raised. Yes, nature had an important role in shaping us, but so did nurture, especially social nurture. In this we're not all that dissimilar to a number of other species. Many animals are born and raised within a social context – they too are social animals.

We're distinguished by having language, and by having culture. A reasonable argument can be put forward that culture is both distinguishing and the basis for important evolutionary steps which we have taken, certainly in the last few thousands of years. We evolve as our culture evolves.

One key reading this week is from The Cultural Animal. Baumeister explains the motivation for this book on psychology with:

“Economists know that trade increases wealth, and division of labor increases productivity. Historians, sociologists, and scientists see how knowledge accumulates in a culture, thereby producing progress—something almost unheard of, even unimaginable, in noncultural animals. Hence being part of a system enables people to produce more and to live better than people who live alone. Those benefits can be measured in terms of survival and reproduction. And so, I propose, we evolved to be able to take advantage of these benefits of belonging to a cultural system.”

The book is all about us as cultural animals. His underlying assumption seems to be the cultural evolution is really “progress” - we advance as our culture advances. That's a bit too strong for me, but I do buy the basic idea about the importance of culture and its role in our evolution (but not always our progress). The first chapter of his book – Beasts for Culture – provides an interesting introduction.

Baumeister's text provides a useful introduction and overview of the psychological foundation for our existence as cultural animals. His goal was to introduce and summarize. Lev Vygotsky was one of the pioneers. He almost fell into psychology from literary criticism in the early years of the Russian revolution. Those early years in the 20s and 30s were intellectually stimulating. Vygotsky studied and wrote about our development through language, culture, and education. His was one of the early voices arguing for the importance of culture and cultural developments for our evolution as a species.

Vygotsky is clearly not a household word, certainly not in North American social science circles. He is now somewhat better know to education theorists, but I find it curious that Baumeister doesn't even have his name in the index of his book. I would point interested readers to a chapter in Rene van der Veer's introduction and overview of Lev Vygotsky' work - “Creating Cultural-historical Theory.”

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May 6 – June 10 (6 sessions) Time: Wednesdays, 10:10 a.m. – 11:55 a.m. Location