Culture Is Learned Through Another

The young psychologist B.F. Skinner using conditioning to train a pigeon. This is an example of situational learning.
The young psychologist B.F. Skinner using conditioning to train a pigeon. This is an example of situational learning.

The unique capacity for culture in the human species depends upon learning. We do not inherit our culture through our genes in the way we inherit our physical characteristics.

We obtain our culture through the process of enculturation. Enculturation is the process of social interaction through which people learn and acquire their culture. We will study this process in more detail in the next chapter. Humans acquire their cultures both consciously, through formal learning, and unconsciously, through informal interaction.

Anthropologists distinguish among several types of learning. One type is known as situational learning, or trial-and-error learning, in which an organism adjusts its behavior on the basis of direct experience. The costs and risks of situational learning can be quite high. Imagine if you only based your decisions about food on trial and error you might encounter a number of foods that are poisonous or inedible. It would be very risky. Fortunately, humans are capable of learned from one another.

Learning from one another is called social learned. It occurs when one organism observes another organism respond to a stimulus and then adds that response to its own collection of behaviors. Thus, the organism need not have the direct experience; it can observe how others behave and then imitate or avoid those behaviors (Rendell et al. 2010).

Obviously, humans learn by observing classmates, teachers, parents, friends, and the media. Within social situations, children and adults can make inferences about what is observed and perceived. Other social animals also learn in this manner. For example, wolves learn hunting strategies by observing pack members. Similarly, chimpanzees observe other chimps fashioning twigs with which to hunt termites and then imitate those behaviors.

Recently, some primatologists and anthropologists have suggested that nonhuman primates have “culture” based upon how they learn socially from one another and have variations of behavior from one group to another (Sapolsky 2006; Laland et al. 2009). However, it appears that nonhuman animals, including primates, do not intentionally or deliberately teach one another as humans do (Tomasello et al. 2005). In addition, as we will discuss later and in Chapter 5 on language, these nonhuman primates do not appear to have a core aspect of what most anthropologists view as an important criteria for designating a “culture,” and that is the ability to symbolize (Rossano 2010; Konner 2010).