Nature is Not a Cultural Construct


As many of you know, I’m studying Anthropology in school. I’m moving more and more towards the Evolutionary Biology/Primatology angle because I’m looking for a potential evolutionary explanation for fanaticism. Part of taking Anthropology at Florida Atlantic University entails taking courses in Cultural Anthropology.

Now, for the most part, I very much enjoy these courses. They are largely fascinating and informative and I’m glad to be in them. However, I find certain ideas, revolving largely around cultural relativism, to be incredibly annoying. The main reason is simply this:

It seems as if some Cultural Anthropologists do not accept the idea that reality has existed for a lot longer than we humans have been around.

One of the classes I’m currently taking is “The Anthropology of Nature”. For the most part, I love this class, and the teacher is shaping up to be one of my more favorite teachers, even while I disagree with things she’s said in class.

And there’s been a lot of that since school started about a month ago.

The main thing I’m not able to get around is this whole idea that nature is a cultural construct.

How is something that has existed for at least 13.77 billion years (make no mistake: the universe is indeed part of nature) a “human construct”? Indeed… how is something that was around for 4.5 billion years before we humans graced it a “human construct”?

Planet Earth is somewhere on the order 4.5 billion years old. This is not a faith-based belief or a random hypothesis; it is a widely-proven fact. For around 4.5 billion years, the nature that we live on existed quite happily without the need for any humans to come along and “construct” it. The earth didn’t suddenly become an artificial human construct some 150,000 years ago when we first evolved here. It existed before we showed up, and it will very likely continue to exist after we either leave it or go extinct.

Many of the anthropologists quoted in class appear to be ignorant of this.

Another one is the idea that these scientifically-evidenced facts are “abstract constructs”. DNA was used as an example.

In actuality, DNA is an actually existing substance that you can indeed see with your own two eyes. In pictures, of course, but nevertheless, we humans did not invent DNA. DNA does indeed contain the building blocks for all earth-based life.

Does this *actual* image of an *actual* molecule of *actual* DNA *really* look like a “cultural construct”?

Does this actual image of an actual molecule of actual DNA really look like a “cultural construct”?

And yes, of course, there are religions and cultures that do not believe this. They believe God made Adam from the dirt and Eve from one of his ribs, or the Way gave birth to unity, which gave birth to duality, which gave birth to trinity, which gave birth to all the creatures on earth, including us. But we also have an independent toolkit we can use to actually study the physical world and determine its age and how it got here. We also have a supplemental toolkit we can use to distinguish fact from “baloney”. Creation myths largely do not hold up to that scrupulous studying.

There is a reason I’m seriously sick of people calling the scientific method and what we’ve learned using it “cultural constructs”. It’s because there is quite literally no better method ever devised to study the natural world and universe. Indeed, I challenge anyone to find one… then go find James Randi and collect $1,000,000.

A couple years ago, Sam Harris rather infamously called religion a “failed science”.

At first, I vehemently disagreed with him (partly because I’m really not a fan of his), but if you think about it, it actually makes sense:

Back before the scientific method, the supernatural world was how we understood the natural world. Natural events, like volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, earthquakes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, monsoons, etc were blamed on the “warring” or “angry” gods. Each part of nature was created and controlled by gods or spirits or such, from the grand universe itself all the way down to things like human actions and emotions.

Of course, now we know better. We know how volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are caused (the moving of the continental plates and the pressure in the center of our planet). And the things we don’t know (the origin of life, the origin of the observable part of our pocket of the universe, etc) are questions we are continually trying to find the answers to, in order to learn and know.

One of my all-time favorite ideas is that reality is true whether you believe in it or not. You don’t have to believe in evolution for it to be a fact. You don’t have to believe in the existence of DNA in order for it to exist. You don’t have to believe in the shifting of the continental plates in order for them to shift. You don’t have to believe in the spheroid shape of the earth in order for it to be a spheroid. You don’t have to believe that we orbit the sun in order for us to orbit the sun.

Nature trucks on regardless of our beliefs. And to this day I have not seen or heard of a better method to establish exactly how nature works than science.

Science cannot answer all questions, of course. There are questions about the nature of our existence that are inherently off limits to science. But they are off limits to science because they are inherently subjective questions, and are thus off limits to objective (read: scientific) inquiry. The purpose to life is one of these kinds of questions that can only be answered by each individual person on an individual basis. The meaning of my life will not be the same as the meaning of your life… unless the meaning of your life is 42, in which case… we agree… 😀

However, a question like “how did we human beings get here?” is a question about the nature of reality, and thus it is a scientific question. It has an objective answer that can be obtained through objective methodology. Evolution, of course, is the objective answer to this question, arrived at by the scientific method.

“Does God exist” is also a question about the nature of reality, and thus can theoretically be answered by science. That doesn’t mean it will be answered of course, just that it can be… in theory, at least.

Another problem with the “cultural construct” thing is this seeming idea that when two different cultures refer to the same thing in different ways, they are referring to two different things.

I mean, I know the Inuit have a good 50 different words for snow (that is… depending on how you define the word “word”). This doesn’t change the fact what we’re all referring to is “precipitation in the form of flakes of crystalline water ice that fall from clouds”.

Or… how a particular culture views and defines a particular natural object doesn’t change what that object actually is. A tree is still a tree. The sky is still the sky. Water is still water. You can call it whatever you want and define it however you want; it goes along just nicely with or without our names and meanings for it.

And one last thing: in science, a theory is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses”. It is not a drunken wild rambling that some fool thought up at the bar right before blacking out. Scientifically speaking, “theory” is about the highest you can get in science. The difference between “hypothesis” and “theory” in science is a bit like the difference between a “bill” and a “law” in government; the difference being the methods used to upgrade one to the other, or reject the hypothesis/bill.

In other words, “I have a theory that he cheated on you” is not actually a theory in any scientific sense (though it could be if you used the scientific method to establish the truth of the statement). “Humans evolved from an ancient primate ancestor via a number of processes including natural selection, sexual selection, and genetic drift” is.

Want an example of a theory we take for granted literally every single second of our lives?

Gravity.

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About Nathan Hevenstone

I hate straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied men. I also play guitar and sing, and I'm an atheist and anti-theist. What now?
This entry was posted in Anthropology, School and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Nature is Not a Cultural Construct

  1. Stephen says:

    I realize this comment is rather late to the party… and perhaps you’ve moved on in your opinions since posting this over three years ago… but I came across this in the course of researching the origins of the whole nature-as-cultural construct argument. As I was reading your post all I could think was that your instructor isn’t explaining the whole issue very well. The idea of nature being a construct of culture rests on the notion that anything we can talk about at all is predisposed to shared cultural signifiers, that language itself is a cultural construct, and so talking about anything – nature, baseball, what you ate for breakfast – is conveyed through a constructed cultural medium. So the argument as I understand it goes something like, when we say Nature, we are eluding to something outside of or contrasting with human Culture, but since the whole notion of nature rests on cultural representations of it, we cannot really understand nature without invoking culture to examine it. The fact that all the stuff that comprises what we call nature has been around for billions of years isn’t the issue. It’s the ways that we are able to comprehend all this that is. I personally loathe the whole “you can’t say nature” BS that I was confronted with in grad school every time I tried to talk about environmental issues, because I find singling nature out as the only thing we can’t talk about to be absurd. Especially when, if you really think about it, randomly excising words because they are cultural constructs would inevitably predispose us to absolute silence, as all words are such constructs. As for science being or not being a cultural construct, of course it is. Objective reality has no need for science. It will exist with or without the human pursuit for knowledge of it (unless one embraces the idea from quantum mechanics that the world creates itself through our observations of it)… That doesn’t mean that science isn’t an effective methodology for comprehending the world, it just means that at the end of the day, science, as the pursuit of information, is a cultural effort.

  2. Steersman says:

    Interesting post, and I quite like your use of the age of the earth and universe to throw a stone or two at the idea of “human constructs”. Although, in passing, I might suggest you read up on the “religion” of “Last Thursdayism”, the belief that “Gawd” created the universe last Thursday, complete with memories and laws of physics which support that “fact” – a belief which is, if I’m not mistaken and according to Massimo Pigliucci, difficult if not impossible to disprove.

    In any case, I found it rather deplorable, to say the least, that your professor has bought into and is peddling that idea, or is at least using it incorrectly. For instance, I do think there are some things that could be considered “human constructs”, at least to some extent – for example, gender, at least in the sense of the attributes commonly described as “male” and “female”. Seems to me that there is a rather broad spectrum of those attributes with some subset being, somewhat arbitarily, termed “male”, and another subset being termed “female” with some notable overlaps – sort of a bimodal distribution (1).

    However, many, mostly in the humanities, seem to go overboard and appear to deny any objective reality at all – which is apparently the problematic aspect and major criticism of postmodernism. I expect you’ve heard of it, and of the “Sokal Affair” which brought the criticisms of it to a head, but you might wish to delve into both a little further. But a good start is, I find, the article (2) on “Fashionable Nonsense”, the book which described that affair and those criticisms in some detail, a notable one of which is described thusly:

    As part of the so-called science wars, the book criticizes postmodernism in academia for what it claims are misuses of scientific and mathematical concepts in postmodern writing.

    But it is those “misuses” that lead more than a few of us to have some serious reservations about some facets of “feminism” due to its apparent reliance on postmodernism. For instance, you might wish to peruse this review (3) of that book by Dawkins some time ago which highlights precisely those problematic facets:

    Dawkins: The feminist ‘philosopher’ Luce Irigaray is another who gets whole-chapter treatment from Sokal and Bricmont. In a passage reminiscent of a notorious feminist description of Newton’s Principia (a “rape manual”), Irigaray argues that E=mc2 is a “sexed equation”. Why? Because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us” (my emphasis of what I am rapidly coming to learn is an ‘in’ word). Just as typical of this school of thought is Irigaray’s thesis on fluid mechanics. Fluids, you see, have been unfairly neglected. “Masculine physics” privileges rigid, solid things. Her American expositor Katherine Hayles made the mistake of re-expressing Irigaray’s thoughts in (comparatively) clear language. For once, we get a reasonably unobstructed look at the emperor and, yes, he has no clothes:

    Hayles: The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids… From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.

    I would be most interested to hear your professor’s opinions on that book and Dawkins’ review of it. You might also wish to run it by Myers as well, particularly considering his recent attempts to redeem the “philosophy”.


    1) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bimodal”;
    2) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashionable_Nonsense”;
    3) “_http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/824-postmodernism-disrobed”;

    • Oh I know all about Postmodernism and the Sokal Affair. Cultural Anthropology these days seems to be infected with Postmodernism… or perhaps these Cultural Anthropologists are the ones who came up with it.

      This is technically off-topic, but I’ll bite for a bit, depending on where it goes…

      All of the feminists I read do not hold to those obviously unintelligent views of science. I don’t think a single Freethought Blogger or Skepchick Blogger, for example, would actually say such things about E=mc2 or the Principia and so on. That sounds, to me, like the more fanatic elements of the second wave of feminism. Since I’m a third-wave feminist, it doesn’t apply.

      Since the feminists I read are also geeks, atheists, and skeptics, we’re all very pro-science and decidedly not postmodern. All of us, I’m sure, would happily join you in excoriating postmodernism for the shit that it is.

      • Steersman says:

        All of us, I’m sure, would happily join you in excoriating postmodernism for the shit that it is.

        Then maybe you missed seeing Myers’ attempt to “re-habilitate” it (1)? While he did concede that some of it was crap, it seems that what isn’t has a long and venerable history in philosophy long before Derrida and company ran rough shod over logic and reason. The only “re-habilitation” that seems possible is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the former really can’t be called post-modernism.

        As for the “feminists [you] read”, I wonder whether that includes Jadehawk who seems to stop only a little short of asserting that gender is entirely a “social construct”, for example here (2) in the following, and elsewhere:

        Jadehawk: “white” is a social construct; remember, about 150 years ago, the Irish weren’t white, nor were Jews. “male” can sometimes be one, too (e.g. pre-transition trans* women will be often read as male), and is often closely intertwined with “masculine” which is almost entirely constructed.

        In addition, I might suggest that your circle of “feminists” is a rather narrow one. For instance, I might also suggest reading the book Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies, and this (3) rather cogent and eye-opening review of it which includes this choice observation:

        The book is a critique on Women Studies departments in the United States. The authors interviewed dozens of women, from staff to professors to students, all quite supportive of feminism, but all still sharing the same criticism of infighting, indoctrination, political correctness and a near total lack of objective discussion.
        ….
        The authors, however, demonstrate that these problems have existed since their ideology’s inception, and were particularly common within Women Studies programs. The authors wrote of the isolationist attitude that dominates many of the programs, along with a virulent anti-science, anti-intellectual sentiment driving many of the professors, staff and students. [my emphasis]

        And you wonder why so many at least raise an eyebrow at what is being peddled by so-called “feminists”.

        —–
        1) “_http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/09/10/can-we-rehabilitate-post-modernism-please/”;
        2) “_http://jadehawks.wordpress.com/2013/04/13/a-collection-of-reading-comprehension-fails/#comment-3254”;
        3) “_http://www.feministcritics.org/blog/2009/07/27/professing-feminism-noh/”;

      • Reread both Myers and Jadehawk. Three times, even four, if you have to.

        PZ clearly states that postmodernism is easy to use for bullshit. So is Quantum Mechanics (Deepak Chopra, anyone?)but I don’t see that being thrown out any time soon.

        Also, I disagree with PZ. I know, I know… hard to believe… but I do. I think he’s wrong. I don’t think postmodernism is worth-it. But if postmodernism does continue to exist, I’d much rather it exists as PZ wants than as it currently is. His understanding of postmodernism is more… acceptable, I guess… than the current popular version.

        Jadehawk is 100% correct that gender (separate from sex, by the way), like race, is a fluid social construct. Based on the existence and continual studying of trans*, it’s clear that, for example, being born with a penis does not necessarily make you male.

      • Steersman says:

        If you disagree with PZ then I suggest you might want to call him on it – I looked for your name on a comment there and didn’t see one. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women] do nothing”. Has some relevance to fascism, does it not? I look forward to you putting your money where your mouth is.

        As for Jadehawk, I think she has her head in the sand or some other place where the sun don’t shine. At least on that point, as some of her other ones look a little more credible, although her opinions on free-will aren’t all that much better than those on gender. But she, you, and many others seem unable to comprehend that terms like “male”, and “female” are only, largely utilitarian, labels for particular sets of attributes, some of which correlate strongly with others, and some which don’t. For instance, “male” encompasses a strong correlation – large numbers of the total population exhibit it – between the X-Y karotype and penises, while “female” encompasses a strong correlation between the X-X karotype and breasts and vaginas. But those labels are not intrinsically connected to those attributes so one can have various cross-overs, for example if I’m not mistaken X-Y karotype correlated with breasts and vaginas in some cases, in some small sample of the total population.

      • As to PZ’s post, I’m reading through the comments now, and the arguments I’d make seem to have already been made. If I think of something not said, I’ll post it. What I notice, however, is that even many of the Horde disagree with him… something I know you and yours don’t believe can happen…

      • Steersman says:

        Yea, I noticed a few weren’t drinking the Kool-Aid. Although it seems more and more of his commentariat aren’t quite as willing to play the trained seals over there, even if many seem to be, Caine – The Enforcer – in particular.

        As for “something I know you and yours don’t believe can happen…”, I wonder how you might know that? A guilty secret you want to tell us about? Although I would be careful of letting PZ know of that since he banned Julian (1) rather summarily for lurking in the Pit.

        But if not that then I wonder what evidence you have to justify it, what hearsay evidence you’ve been listening to, and from whom. Particularly since I don’t recollect either I or anyone else making any such categorical statements.

        —-
        1) “_http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/03/22/adria-richards-did-everything-exactly-right/comment-page-3/#comment-587307”;

      • How do I know that, Steersman?

        Yea, I noticed a few weren’t drinking the Kool-Aid. Although it seems more and more of his commentariat aren’t quite as willing to play the trained seals over there, even if many seem to be, Caine – The Enforcer – in particular.

        That. That is how I know y’all don’t think it can happen. This idea that FTB expects, and gets, total agreement without dissent is a meme amongst y’all, and it really has never been true. I don’t agree with FTB bloggers because I read them; I read them because often agree with them. But sometimes I disagree with them, too! It really happens!

        And this is not the first, or second, time that the Horde has disagreed with PZ… he even changed his mind and apologized to us because we disagreed with him! One example has to do with “sometimes a bunny is just a bunny”… PZ’s very own Horde chewed him out in no uncertain terms… and he apologized for it.

        The Horde disagreeing with PZ is neither new nor rare.

      • Steersman says:

        Good, glad to hear it. But nothing in what I said justifies you concluding that I think that “FTB expects, and gets, total agreement without dissent”. Much less that all of “us” do so.

        Although, in passing, I would be interested if anyone over there spoke up when PZ decided to characterize, apparently, everyone who disagreed with his particular rather specious and idiosyncratic version of “feminism” as carrying the name “Marc Lepine”.

        And I wonder how you would characterize the commentariat’s response to the banning of Julian simply for lurking in the Pit. Did any speak up and suggest that that was a shitty way to run a blog?

        Maybe there are some, even more now, who take PZ to task, but it still looks more like, in general, a bunch of trained seals.

  3. knace says:

    I’m curious as to why you aren’t a fan of Sam Harris. For me, it’s because of his giant ego and he also makes me think of Ben Stiller.

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