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Nature or nurture
Exploring the relationship between evolutionary biology and culture

Archived article from Oct 27, 2000

By Sandra Lanman  


It was the late 1970s and anthropology was being rocked by radical new thinking on the biological origins of human behavior. A first-year college student at the time, Lee Cronk was intrigued by the new paradigm that dovetailed with his own budding passion for evolution, and he was already deep into its literature.

Proudly, he informed an anthropology professor at Northwestern University that he'd read two of the then ill-named "sociobiology" movement's defining works by Edward Osborne Wilson and Richard Dawkins. But instead of a pat on the back, Cronk was instructed to read cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins' tract condemning all that Cronk found appealing in the new theories.



Lee Cronk's research of the Mukogodo people of Kenya allowed him to study behavior separated from its cultural context.


Photo by Nick Romanenko

Now an associate professor of anthropology at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) - New Brunswick, Cronk refers to the assignment as a "purgative," designed to rid him of the urge to infect his study of cultural anthropology with notions of evolution and biology.

"For Wilson, Dawkins and a few renegade anthropologists suddenly to propose that biology was more important -- and, by implication, that culture was less important -- than they had thought was shocking, insulting and even dangerous in the eyes of most cultural anthropologists," Cronk writes in the preface to his 1999 book, "That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior" (Westview Press).

The experience at Northwestern brought Cronk face-to-face with the continental divide between cultural and evolutionary anthropologists. It may also have helped lay the foundation for Cronk's own future as an anthropologist striving to bridge those two worlds in order to better understand and explain the roots of human behavior and the roles of culture and evolution.

Cronk says he would like to create an approach to the study of human behavior that is "simultaneously cultural and evolutionary," and believes the best place to do that is among those who study evolution. Rutgers, he says, is one of the few institutions whose anthropology department focuses almost exclusively on the cultural and evolutionary subdisciplines.

He joined the department in September 1999, coming from Texas A&M, where he had taught since 1989. Department Chair John W.K. Harris describes the addition of Cronk and Helen Fisher, who was recently appointed a research professor, as "bridging appointments." These new faculty members continue a tradition of examining the evolution of human social behavior that began in the 1960s with the department's founding by Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger.

"These two appointments have helped us bridge the intellectual differences in the approaches to the study of humankind in its broadest sense," Harris says. "We're looking at the evolution of human social behavior since its beginnings and at the circumstances that, in a sense, characterized the social behavior of our earliest ancestors, and we're bringing that up to the present condition."

Both "That Complex Whole" and the just published "Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective" (Aldine de Gruyter), which Cronk edited with William Irons of Northwestern and retired University of California-Santa Barbara anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, provide the historical context of the schism between cultural and evolutionary anthropology and make a case for studying them together.

"That Complex Whole" has been well-received by reviewers and academics, and has been picked up as an anthropology text in several places. The title comes from a 19th-century definition of culture by Edward Burnett Tylor, an Englishman who, writes Cronk, gave the term its first technical definition: Culture, Tylor said, is "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Cronk admits he is not entirely comfortable with Tylor's definition because it uses behavior to define culture, making it circular and therefore "meaningless."

In "That Complex Whole," written in a highly readable style, Cronk argues for a more fundamental definition that does not include behavior. "By separating behavior from culture we can finally hope to use the culture concept to actually explain behavior in a fundamental way -- in terms outside itself -- without making the mistake of thinking that all behavior is caused by culture or that behavior reflects the influence of culture in any simple or straightforward way," writes Cronk.

The book details Cronk's research with the Mukogodo people of Kenya, in whom he identified a characteristic behavior -- favoritism toward their daughters -- that did not seem to spring from their culture as they defined it, but from something less apparent.

The Mukogodo are a poor people of low social status compared to the relatively wealthy Maasai, into whose society they have largely been absorbed, explains Cronk. The Mukogodo were cave-dwelling hunters and gatherers until the early 20th century, when they rapidly became pastoralists, who now raise livestock and cultivate honeybees.

Cronk found that the Mukogodo have more daughters than sons and that females usually marry well into Maasai families. Males have a much more difficult time physically, socially and economically. In research conducted with his wife, Beth Leech, and the assistance of Mukogodo women, he also found that sons were not as well cared for or as healthy as daughters.

"But favoring daughters is precisely the opposite of what the Mukogodo say they do, and they appear to be unaware that they are even doing it," he writes.

The key to this conundrum, believes Cronk, is not found in the Mukogodo's culture, which does not ostensibly favor daughters, but in evolutionary theory on reproductive success that cuts across species. He cites the Trivers-Willard hypothesis, named in part for Rutgers anthropology Professor Robert L. Trivers, who helped conceive it. Simply put, the theory states that maternal health and well-being affect that of offspring, with optimal conditions tending to favor males and poor ones favoring females.

Among the Mukogodo, where poor conditions favor daughters even as the people claim to favor sons, Cronk feels he has found an example in which "you can pry [culture and behavior] apart." This example and others he describes in the book "allow us to get away from the notion that all behavior is caused by culture, which can help us to understand behavior generally and culture's influence on it specifically," he explains.

Cronk hopes to return to East Africa next year to help the Mukogodo connect with resources that can improve their economic status, possibly by marketing their honey or livestock. His wife, who is an assistant professor of political science at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences-New Brunswick, also has been asked by the Mukogodo women to be an adviser.

In another project combining his interests in culture and evolution, Cronk will look at the power of cosmetics to affect perceptions of attractiveness. "There has been a lot of work by evolutionary psychologists on facial attractiveness, but none of it looks at cosmetics," he observes. "It's an opportunity to look at a signaling system from an evolutionary framework."

He says one of the things he wants his students to come away with is a sense that there doesn't have to be a conflict between the evolutionary and cultural approaches to anthropology. They can coexist.

"There was a discussion recently about which one I was -- a cultural or evolutionary anthropologist," he relates. "And I said 'I'm both.' What's wrong with that?"


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Last Updated: May 30, 2006

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