The Difference Culture Makes




The dawn of culture and its subsequent elaboration is one of the most important developments in the history of life. It is now recognized that culture, at least in a minimalist sense of behavioral traditions shaped by social learning, is found widely throughout the animal kingdom.  And this fact, perhaps ironically for those of a reductionist bent, has made possible new understandings of just how distinctive humans are, especially in terms of symbolic thought, cooperativity far beyond genetic relatedness, the cumulative nature of our cultures, and our pervasive sense of transcendence. Yet, nearly 150 years after Tylor’s Primitive Culture, we are still coming to appreciate in sometimes surprising new ways how the phenomenon of culture is transforming this planet. I suggest that despite the apparent pervasiveness of the concept, or at least the word, in both scholarly and everyday discourse, we have yet to appreciate the full potential of the concept of culture as an intellectual tool. Through brief exploration of five different situations in which it is useful, I hope to illustrate the importance of the phenomenon and show the untapped potential of the concept.
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