• Alana Conner

Taking the 'vs.' out of nature vs. nurture

Evolutionary and cultural psychologists found common ground at a first-ever conference. By ALANA CONNER SNIBBE, PHD November 2004, Vol 35, No. 10 Print version: page 22

Original published article can be found here: https://www.apa.org/monitor/nov04/nature.html

White flags of truce flew over the nature vs. nurture wars at a July conference on mind, culture and evolution, where cultural and evolutionary psychologists swapped findings and philosophies. At stake, said cultural psychologist and conference organizer Steven Heine, PhD, was nothing less than "how to view human nature in psychology."

The three-day conference, "Mind, Culture and Evolution: The First University of British Columbia Summer Symposium," was the first formal meeting of cultural and evolutionary psychologists--two groups that have historically had little to say to each other.

"Basically, there is a turf battle between the two," explained University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, PhD, whose research integrates cultural and evolutionary psychology approaches. "Moderates on both sides recognize that the other side has a legitimate explanatory role, but the question comes down to how much of an explanatory role. Each side wants the bigger piece of the pie."

On the one hand, evolutionary psychologists like David Buss, PhD, of the University of Texas, emphasize that humans' abilities to create, adapt to and pass on their cultures--their beliefs, attitudes, practices and institutions--are a product of evolution. Having human cultures requires having brains that can handle such complex activities as language production and social coordination. Evolution selected these complicated, culture-making brains in humans (and perhaps a few other animals), meaning that early human ancestors with such brains had more children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren than did hominids with different brains. Over generations, evolutionists hold, human ancestors with culture-making brains dominated the ancestral landscape, and their genes dominated the genome, until only Homo sapiens were left.

On the other hand, cultural psychologists emphasize that culture is a second force in human nature--and one that is at least as important as evolution. Unlike other organisms, humans actively create their symbolic, social and material worlds. It is only through interacting with these cultural worlds that meaty human brains become sublime human minds, said Stanford University cultural psychologist Hazel Rose Markus, PhD. "Additionally," Markus continued, "people everywhere ask, 'Who am I? Why am I here? What is the good way to be?' Cultures inform their answers to these foundational questions, and therefore fundamentally shape their psychologies."

Conference organizers gave the two intellectual camps equal airtime to discuss differences and perhaps discover common ground, with cultural psychologists presenting on the first day and evolutionary psychologists presenting on the second. On the final day, speakers presented research that synthesized the two approaches (see Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 for each day's highlights).


Conference attendees showed "open-minded good will on both sides," observed McMaster University evolutionary psychologist Martin Daly, PhD. This contrasts with the stereotypes of the two fields, according to which evolutionary psychologists approach culture as mere mud flaps on the eighteen-wheeler of natural selection, while cultural psychologists approach evolution as a salacious soap opera that went off the air 200,000 years ago.

Indeed, many conference attendees were already thinking about how cultural and evolutionary psychologists might integrate their views.

"Evolutionary psychology can examine the evolved human potential for culture, whereas cultural psychology can show how that potential is transformed to yield a functioning psychological system," said cultural psychologist Shinobu Kitayama, PhD, of the University of Michigan. Unified, the two fields might then tackle the larger "why" questions that elude psychologists of all stripes: Why does a given psychological process arise in the first place, why does it persist--not just over evolutionary time, but also over historical and developmental time--and why does it change?


At a meta-theoretical level, both fields give the same answer to those "why" questions, noted University of Toronto cultural psychologist Glenn Adams, PhD. Psychological processes emerge, persist and change over time because humans adapt to their environments. Cultural and evolutionary psychologists differ, however, in what they mean by the terms "adaptation," "time" and "environment," he said.

Evolutionary psychologists use these terms in their Darwinian senses: Adaptations are biological changes that became more frequent among humans because they contributed to reproductive success over millions of years in the ancestral environment. So, for example, many evolutionary psychologists say that we can thank our Stone Age ancestors for the neural circuits underlying our attraction to symmetrical faces. Among our ancient forebears, facial symmetry on the outside might have meant a strong immune system on the inside--a coup for hominids and their offspring on the primordial savanna, where sicknesses far outnumbered remedies.

Cultural psychologists, however, often use a looser definition of adaptation to mean changes in values, practices and institutions that proved useful in particular social, historical or ecological contexts. So, for example, many Americans can attribute their deep-seated need to work overtime to their Protestant predecessors. For them, hard work on the outside often indicated spiritual worth on the inside--a two-for-one ticket that ensured material wealth in this life and a spot in heaven in the next.

Will the frequency of meetings between culturalists and evolutionists increase? Adaptation is tricky to predict, but people are already asking about a second conference of this sort, reported University of British Columbia cultural psychologist Ara Norenzayan, PhD, who also served as one of the conference's organizers. In lieu of prognostication, Buss simply pronounced the first conference "a smashing success" because it "began to build bridges between the two perspectives, and may ultimately create a unified field of psychology."

Alana Conner Snibbe is a writer in San Francisco.

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