Cormac's Reviews > The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life

The Cultural Animal by Roy F. Baumeister
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's review
Aug 06, 08

bookshelves: anthropology
Read in January, 2006

Baumeister is a perceptive psychologist (see his work on "Evil"). However, when he turns anthropologist - and in particular evolutionary anthropologist - his perceptions fail him.
Really, it is his terms of reference that fail. "Culture", in normal parlance, denotes a sum of factors (customs, works of art, inventions, technology, etc.) that characterize the mode of living of a particular society or group of people. Baumeister, however, understands it as a system of behavior which enables a species to survive. His thesis then becomes simple: man, being more predisposed to culture in this sense, has progressed more than the other animals.
Culture, for most people, stems from rational activity. From the title of his book, one might think that Baumeister agrees (The Cultural Animal = The Rational Animal); but no. On the contrary, for him cultural and rational would not seem to be connected at all. He rather avoids referring to reason or intellect as a distinguishing feature of man. "Meaning" is his key word ("Ultimately, one of the biggest differences between social and cultural animals is in the power of meaning to cause behavior": 391). "Meaning" is a major reference term in his Index, with many more references than "Intellect". ("Emotions" is another major reference heading. "Thought" has only one reference - referred precisely to Emotions). Nowhere does he tackle the questions of how one can invoke "meaning" without positing intelligence, or how intelligence itself can be an evolutionary product.
Morality and self-control appear simply as inevitable evolutionary developments, culturally (in his sense) induced restraints, to make an acceptable social order and the growth of the species possible (348ss). He attributes phenomena such as guilt and virtue more to culture than to nature (147); and relates guilt only to actions that hurt others. The point of reference is always social; the notion of a man violating the imperatives of his personal nature does not enter. ("Conscience" has no entry in the Index. It appears only as social conscience).
Truth scarcely interests him (it has only one ref. in the Index). Thinking is in order to get things done, or to serve in social life; that is also the function of moral reasoning (237-240).
Basically he holds that "culture" conditions nature more than the other way round. But culture remains subject to variable conditions. Ultimately this amounts to a denial of any common human nature. On such a viewpoint it is in fact impossible to develop any science of anthropology, any proper study of "man".
A positive point is that he, unlike most psychologists, rejects determinism and believes in a (at least relative) free will (298-306).

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