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How Culture Is Misunderstood in the Evolution of Mind

Biology and culture are continuous.

By Rami Gabriel
Still Life
Source: By Rami Gabriel

Focusing on higher-order aspects of sui generis human behavior like language and certain forms of culture leads psychologists to wrongly appraise the relationship between culture and biology. Since the manner in which we mediate our emotions, and almost everything else, is through language, we shouldn’t, therefore, conclude that this is the only level of causal efficacy, we should rather reflect upon how human forms of observation and explanation are unique and should not be used as the only framework by which to determine the limits of mind. This applies in understanding the range of human abilities as well as when we create frameworks to investigate across the wide range of natural life. To focus so heavily on culture and language as unique is a way to define our way out of the problem of other (non-linguistic) minds. Indeed, adopting a continuity between the format and the use of affect would allow us to avoid one dead end in the study of the evolution of mind, namely the claim that while survival circuits connect us to the history of life, emotions, as mediated by language and culture, are uniquely human.

We should be suspicious of any research program that uses verbal responses as the only reliable method to study consciousness because, as Daniel Dennett wrote, a mind that has language is of a different order than a mind without language. This applies doubly to research programs that claim emotions are nothing more than cultural constructions. For example, Joseph Ledoux in an otherwise interesting and exciting book, The Deep History of Ourselves, relies too much on the theory that emotions require language and autonoetic consciousness. He claims that social emotions like guilt and jealousy and existential emotions are not attached to survival circuits.

But consider, if survival circuits are responsible for the physiological aspect of emotions, is it possible that we do not experience states of arousal and motivation when immersed in social encounters? Is it possible that the contemplation of death, that dizzying aporia of angst and dread, does not activate physiological responses? Are these emotions as Ledoux claims actually exaptations that are simply caused by the possession of language and autonoetic consciousness? A more robust understanding of the interrelatedness of the continuity between culture and biology would lead us to see such an approach as an extension of Cartesian cognitivism that misaligns the two.

Cognitive psychologists don’t study culture per se, they study mental mechanisms instantiated in the information processing model of the individual mind. By focusing on higher-level capacities that can be formalized into models, cognitive psychologists have developed an insufficient conceptualization of the embodied and affective capacities that sustain the human mind between biology and culture. This is reflected in the period of cognitive science in which researchers from Michael Gazzaniga to Leon Festinger, Daniel Kahneman, and Ledoux himself delineated the role of confabulation and cognitive bias in misleading our beliefs. These are certainly reliable mechanisms, but the cognitivist agenda, that our thoughts are wholly determined by our information-processors amounts ultimately misconstrues the continuity between non-linguistic and linguistic minds.

As any anthropologist or animal ethologist will tell you, culture is a form of biology; biology is continuous with culture. Culture is a reflection of how ecological factors modify a given species’ biological endowment. Forms of culture such as habitation, ritual, and kinship structures are determined largely by biological factors within the pressures of ecological conditions. Cognition is responsible for synthesizing sensory and mnemonic signals towards regulating the organism and its behavior. Accordingly, as the late Jerome Kagan claimed, context, not cognitive mechanism, is the clearest determinant of our actions.

The disproportionate power awarded to cultural construction of emotion schemas in the recent wave of research in psychology is an over-compensation for a lack of understanding of how deeply conditioned to biology our cultural practices really are. Rather than adopt methods from the human sciences and the historical sciences to appropriately appreciate the nature of sociological, linguistic, and aesthetic phenomena, many researchers have found it easier to assert that culture is an all-powerful determinant of emotions in top-down cognitivism than to measuredly locate the complex interactions that exist upon multiple levels of emergent associations in non-linguistic experience.

Joseph Ledoux’s adoption of the conceptual act theory in his 2019 book is all the more disappointing in light of his welcome references to lyrics and music throughout. Emotions are indeed incorrigible; songs have emotional and intellectual effects upon listeners and the musicians that play them. This is not simply because of our linguistically mediated emotion schemas, though they do play a part, it is also because of many ethereal affective layers of remembered and not-remembered experience and associations. Art affects us both as linguistic conceptual beings but it also moves us at our non-linguistic core as a biological phenomenon mediated through our cultural practices. An adequate appreciation of the role of artistic practices in the human condition can help us realign the role of culture as a biological phenomenon. Equally made up of habits, concepts, and rituals, culture is the way we deliberately organize our biological resources to cope in our present ecological niche.


Asma, S. T. & Gabriel, R. (2019). The Emotional Mind: The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kagan, J. (2009). The Three Cultures: Natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities in the 21st century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ledoux, J. E. (2018). The Deep History of Ourselves. New York: Penguin Random House.