How Are We Influenced by Those Around Us?
Culture is the knowledge, beliefs, behavior, outlook, attitudes, values, goals, traditions, and practices shared by a group of people that cannot be attributed to genetics. We define culture as the universal human ability to encode and transmit our experiences symbolically. Anthropologist Rob Boyd calls culture the “engine of human adaptation,” explaining that it was by accumulating and passing on knowledge through the generations—culture—that humans were able to adapt to a multitude of environments much more quickly than by genetic adaptation alone. Culture empowers us with tools that we wouldn’t have otherwise, but it also biases us in certain ways: if you traded places with a Bushman of the Kalahari, neither of you would be as well-equipped to survive in your new environment as the one you grew up in. The culture of your birth would not have prepared you for these new surroundings.
Many debates on what it means to be human devolve into discussions of nature versus nurture, biology versus culture. The truth is, we are mainly influenced by how they interact with one another. Like all animals, the environment we find ourselves in affects how we respond to stimuli within it. Humans display a great deal of social conditioning, in that we unconsciously and consciously train individuals to behave and respond in certain ways according to the norms of our society. For example, our relatively hairless biology might push us to adopt clothes, but in every human society, there are cultural customs surrounding clothing that shape how we dress. You don’t think in the morning “I should put on clothes to conform to societal norms,” you just get dressed. You are conditioned by your social environment. This kind of conformity is important to us as social animals because desire for acceptance and fear of rejection are a significant motivation for our behavior.