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A Theoretical Discussion on the Relation Between Culture and Human Biology

Painel apresentado em congresso internacional

por Aline Melo de Aguiar

Microsoft PowerPoint - Aline2.ppt [Modo de Compatibilidade]

The present work proposes a theoretical discussion concerning Homo sapiens sapiens species on the basis of an evolutionary perspective, using an interactional approach, and taking into account that this species is “biologically cultural”, according to Bussab and Ribeiro (1998). The influence of cultural and historical contexts in interaction with biology will be emphasized. The concepts of natural selection, adaptation, sexual selection and parental investment, as well as developmental niche by Sara Harkness and Charles Super (1992, 1996) and the six parenting systems of care by Heidi Keller (2005) support this theoretical reflection.

In order to promote this discussion, we selected some examples where the interaction between biology and culture/technology are present, such as:

  1. in vitro fertilization enabling naturally infertile individuals to procreate;
  2. fetal surgery to treat early diagnosed problems in intra-uterine stage of life;
  3. intentional DNA alterations or eugenics, allowing fetus without ovarian and breast cancer genes;
  4. the issue of sickle-cell anemia and malaria, that represented an adaptive advantage in one determined historical context;
  5. having a genetic syndrome, as Down syndrome, where the survival and reproduction has been modified by the progress of medicine and education in the last few decades.


Evolutionary Psychology is based on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (1859/2004) to discuss the adaptability of human being to his environment, and it aims to know the human nature and the mind architecture of Homo sapiens sapiens. It considers the biological predispositions as much as the behavior characteristics in different contexts, without undervaluing the individual factors, but aiming to know how the interaction between selected characteristics of the species and personal experiences occurs (Seidl-de-Moura, 2005; Vieira & Prado, 2005; of Wall, 2007).

The assumptions of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) are:

  1. the existence of an universal human nature, composed by psychological mechanisms that are products of the species evolution process and not of specific behaviors;
  2. the psychological mechanisms are adaptations resulted from the natural selection process occurred throughout the evolutionary time;
  3. the structure of human mind is adaptive to the ancestral environment of evolution, involving mechanisms of information processing that allows human beings to produce, to absorb, to modify, and to transmit culture (Bussab & Ribeiro, 1998; Bussab, 2000; Seidl-de-Moura, 2005).

On a similar way, we can consider the following premises for the biological evolution with special emphasis to human being evolution:

  1. the biological evolution occurs in a intergenerational context, that is, the success in producing a viable offspring is what guarantee the perpetuation of lineage;
  2. human beings are at the same time highly specialized and generalists. The selection of behavioral mechanisms and the use of tools on a context of intra-specific competition (Morris, 1967) allowed the humanity to adapt practically to any ecosystems;
  3. modified environments (artificial) constructed by man are the majority on the planet, and even those environments considered “natural” suffer some kind of human influence (IPCC, 2007); and finally;
  4. the phenotype (final result of genetic expression) in any individual development is the result from the interaction between molecules codified by the genome and the environment in its several levels: molecular, cellular and ecological.

Adaptation and natural selection are fundamental concepts for EP, where adaptation can be considered as a behavior pattern that contributes for an individual to survive and to reproduce in specific environments, that is, adaptive effects belong to natural selection (Vieira & Prado, 2005).

We can think, however, that man is a being that creates culture. According to Bussab and Ribeiro (1998), there is a connected interaction between culture and man where one reconstructs the other permanently, where a baby only becomes human when it interacts with his/her culture. Thus, “man is, at the same time, creature and creator of the culture”. The development of a human being, beyond presenting a phylogenetically inherited structure throughout thousand of years, requires the appreciation of the cultural context where the child is born for the best understanding of its ontogenesis, leading us to think about an inseparable interaction between biology and culture (Harkness & Super, 1992, 1996).

In agreement with Keller (2005), the human species, as well as other species, presents propensity to take care of its offspring. The author proposes six parenting systems of care of the offspring resultant of man’s evolutive history. They are: primary care, body contact, body stimulation, object stimulation, face-to-face interaction and narrative envelope. These systems of parenting are organized according to baby’s signals that are noticed by caregivers. The fitness between the characteristics of the baby and the tendencies of care of the parents is adaptive. As the human baby does not survive alone, he/she depends on parental investment, and he/she is born with abilities genetically determined that predispose him to interact with whom will take care of him (Keller, 2005; Seidl-de-Moura & Ribas, 2004).

With this perspective, we bring some questions for an initial reflection. In the case of individuals with Down syndrome, two aspects can be considered. One of them is related to the explanation of the syndrome, considering natural selection and the ability of individuals that possess it. The progress of medicine and education has brought changes in the capability of these individuals, but this is still recent. Another factor has to do with changes on cultural beliefs and values systems that have modified the perception about the potentialities of individuals with DS. In any way, the characteristics of Down babies and their low responsiveness may affect the investment on them, which compromises their development. Biology and culture are involved here, but EP seems not to have a significant contribution to the subject yet.

A second example for discussing the interaction between biology and culture is the issue of sickle-cell anemia and malaria that in determined historical context represented adaptive advantages, and that today, by the action of culture (drugs, prevention and care) rends the technology adaptive and no more a biological alteration to relieve human being from certain diseases.


We also have the question of in vitro fertilization that currently is a common and accepted procedure. It enables naturally unfertile individuals to become fathers and mothers, which guarantees, biologically, that they transmit their genes, and, socially, that they play an expected role in many cultures.

The current improvement reached by health technology aims at the cure of illnesses and extension of life, originating, for example, intentional DNA alterations or eugenics to generate fetus without gene for ovarian and breast cancer. In this in case, the search for a “perfect” individual (whicht is a culturally constructed concept and that varies between diverse cultures) runs away from the biological objective where the natural selection would act and creates a supposed culturally constructed natural selection.

Another example that fits in this proposal is the one of fetal surgeries to treat early diagnosed problems in intrauterine life where the fetus was perhaps not viable and could not survive.

Leite (2006) brings an important reflection concerning the gap between scientific findings and what is propagated in the media about human genome researches for lay population. That includes promises of longevity, cure of illnesses and solution for diverse questions related to human biology where there are not concrete scientific answers yet. Perhaps the western, urban culture, inside of a capitalist economy that searches for productivity wants to hear that there is a way “to correct” nature, and the media (that is an instrument of culture) assumed the task to attend this necessity.

The result of manipulation of human biology, frequently as a response to cultural demands, does not present long term results yet. Perhaps in the future, we will be able to evaluate which had been positive and which had been negative. But, today, we still have more questions than answers. What we can be certain of is that Charles Darwin, 150 years ago, with the publication of “The Origin of the Species” (1859/2004) launched a determinative historical seed. At that time, it was impossible to foresee its repercussion, but currently it is the basis of great part of science and the way we think about what is the human being today.

All the cited examples have the intention to show how biology is affected by man through culture/technology and vice versa. We could affirm that the humanity evolution involves a set of behaviors in response to social and environmental changes. Darwinism was revolutionary in showing exactly that this apparent enigmatic organization actually introduce a simple logic – the one of natural selection, in other words, the organisms more well adapted to the current conditions survive and leave more descendents.

Final considerations

This presentation aims to raise some questionings for reflection. It is inconceivable that at the present time we do not think about human beings in any other way than “biologically cultural”. After all, genes do not mean destinations, because their effect depend on the environment where they live. Cultural evolution is relatively dissociated from the biological one. While the last one occurs compulsorily in horizontal direction, in a lineage ancestral-descendants, the first one happens at social level and can be transversally transmitted independent of blood relations. The tendency is that each day culture/technology presents us more questions that could affect the biological aspect as well as the cultural ones, and we need to pay attention to what kind of world we want to construct today and in the future. In this way, the EP is a relevant perspective for the comprehension of the human being from yesterday, today and tomorrow. Psychology enables us to understand individual development, however how will be the human species development in a long time, after the interventions that individuals have access today? Would not the current tendency to deteriorate the natural systems that support the planetary life be a threat for natural selection? Again, we search answers for classic questions: Who are we? From where did we come? And, mainly, to where do we go?

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