Do genes drive culture? New developments in culture-gene coevolutionary theory

A recently published  research paper lends support to the idea that genes and culture influence one another mutually, effectively co-evolving. A link has been proposed between the collectivism-individualism scale of national cultures and a gene that affects the supply of seratonin to the body, the seratonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR. A media-friendly summary of the research is available. On the background to biocultural anthropology see Bindon (2007).

The method used for measuring culture is interesting and fairly well documented (Hofstede 2001; Hofstede and McRae 2004). The individualism-collectivism scale is similar to the ‘group’ dimension in Grid-Group Cultural Theory.

This leads to a number of questions:

  1. If 5-HTTLPR can be seen as a ‘group’ gene (i.e. its prevalence is correlated with a communal rather than individual culture), does this mean we should now be looking for a ‘grid’ gene, to confirm or deny the typology of Cultural Theory? To be specific, the individualist-collectivist scale only allows for one type of collectivist culture (ie. collectivist) whereas from a Cultural Theory perspective there is clearly more than one basic type, namely Hierarchical collectivism (high grid) and Egalitarian collectivism (low grid). It is hard to say prima facie that these two types are so similar to one another that no further distinction needs to be made. The same goes for the two types of individualist cultural bias, Fatalist (high grid) and Individualist (low grid).
  2. Or, if the group dimension needs to be augmented with the grid dimension, what does this mean for the results of a study that claims to have described regional cultures in terms of only one dimension? It was anthropologist Mary Douglas’s claim that the group dimension, individualism-collectivism, was not on its own enough to describe cultural biases, and that a fourfold typology was necessary. If this is so, we could hypothesise that in the seratonin study, there will be interference caused by the unexamined ‘grid’ dimension, that needs to be controlled for, or otherwise accounted for.
  3. The argument of the paper is strongly functionalist. That is, culture is seen to have a clear function in relation to the mental health and genetic makeup of individuals, and reciprocally, genetic makeup is seen to have a function in relation to mental health within its cultural context.  This seems to have implications for the ways in which Grid-group cultural theory might develop in engagement with genetic and other biological studies of this kind.
  4. The paper also accepts fairly uncritically the claim of ‘cultural consonance’, that where individuals, in their own beliefs and behaviours, conform to widely shared cultural models, there is a lower incidence of psychological distress (Dressler et al. 2007). I’m concerned about the normative implications of such a claim, that cultural consonance (and possibly cultural conformity) might be seen as desirable because it reduces psychological distress. This contrasts with, for instance, Robert K Merton’s views of deviance, in which besides conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion are alternative was of engaging with cultural norms and goals.


Bindon, James R. (2007). “Biocultural linkages — cultural consensus, cultural consonance, and human biological research”. Collegium Antropologicum 31: 3–10.

Joan Y. Chiao and Katherine D. Blizinsky
Culture–gene coevolution of individualism–collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene Proc. R. Soc. B published online before print October 28, 2009, doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.1650

Dressler, William W., Mauro C. Balieiro, Rosane P. Ribeiro and José Ernesto Dos Santos (2007) Cultural consonance and psychological distress: examining the associations in multiple cultural domains. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, Volume 31, Issue 2, 195 – 224.

Hofstede, G (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hofstede, G. & McCrae, R. (2004) Personality and culture revisited: linking traits and dimensions of culture. Cross-Cult. Res. 38, 52–88.


#approvalmatrix – fourfold typologies make it to Twitter

Here’s an older post from the Savage Minds anthropology blog about Mary Douglas’s grid-group typology (the basis of the four cultures explored on this site). It’s basically a mashup of that typology and an alternative scheme deriving from Pierre Bourdieu (if he wrote for the New York Magazine, that is): highbrow/lowbrow; brilliant/despicable.

I like it because I’ve been very interested in the proliferation of fourfold schemes in the social sciences – and here’s another one. In particular I’m interested in whether these schemes are each as radically new as the author or creator always seems to think, or whether there’s some kind of underlying structure that makes superficially different formulations somehow connect.

This particular juxtaposition reminds me of Arthur Koestler’s understanding of creativity, which comes about where

‘a single situation or idea is perceived in two self-consistent but mutually incompatible frames of reference’.

If you’re interested, the approval matrix has been re-purposed and applied to Twitter posts at O’Reilly Radar.

Koestler, Arthur (1964) The Act of Creation. London: Pan. Quoted in William Byers (2007) How Mathematicians Think. Using Ambiguity, Contradiction and Paradox to Create Mathematics. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 28.

The meaning of culture

When Glasgow won the honour of hosting the 1990 European City of Culture festival the joke was, Culture? Isn’t that what we’ve got growing on our walls? (from memory,  this was Rab C Nesbitt’s contribution). It wasn’t far off the mark though. I interviewed an amazing woman, Cathy McCormack, who had successfully campaigned for a medical and, yes, cultural recognition that the mould growing in council houses was a contributing factor to Glasgow’s high incidence of heart disease, and that therefore, it shouldn’t be assumed that people with heart disease had brought it upon themselves by eating a poor diet (deep fried mars bars and pizzas notwithstanding).

So culture can mean different things depending on context. I rather like Edgar Schein’s description (1991: 111):

‘Culture can now be defined as a pattern of basic assumptions, invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore is to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems’.

That’s certainly neat, but it’s not necessarily straightforward. I’ve previously mentioned here the meaning of culture, and it should be noted that a well-known study by Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1963) identified 164 unique definitions of the term ‘culture’, while van der Post et al. (1997) listed more than 100 dimensions and according to Ott (1989) there were 74 elements of organisational culture. Continue reading “The meaning of culture”

How to deviate from climate change destruction – the case of the Great Barrier Reef

A confession: I visited the Great Barrier Reef a couple of years ago and it was the most stunning experience of my life. The beauty, intricacy, diversity, were amazing. The experience of immersion in this underwater world was and is vivid – literally alive. But I felt profoundly uneasy participating iin the industrial system that got me there – plane flight, chain hotel, large, fast motor boat. In order to appreciate the beauty of what we’re destroying we need to destroy it a little bit more, it seems.
Environmental writer Chris Turner addresses this dilemma head on in a marvellous piece for Canada’s Walrus Magazine, The Age of Breathing Underwater.

Justice cannot be done to the piece here – you need to read it for yourself. He focuses on the work of Australian coral expert Dr Charlie Veron, author of A Reef in Time, who, as Turner tells it, fights to save the Reef, even as he affirms it cannot now be saved. Ocean acidification has gone too far already. What lies in the human heart on the far side of hope is the subject, then, of Turner’s article.
If you’ve read more than one post on this website you’ll be expecting an anaylsis of the social structures that condition such thinking in terms of a model of society called Grid-Group Cultural theory. It’s true there is ample scope for this. For example, when Veron likens ocean acidification to a loaded gun with ‘a hair trigger and devastating firepower’, he’s indulging in classic Egalitarian-speak which ought to call into question his construction of the facts (by etymology if not by modern definition facts are always constructions: facere = to make). This is not at all to deny that acidification is taking place, but to scrutinise the human meanings we assign to it. But this time I want to do something a little different. This time I want to write in terms of deviance Continue reading “How to deviate from climate change destruction – the case of the Great Barrier Reef”

Why Psychology fails to explain the Global Financial Crisis

Listening to Australian historian Robert Mann’s recent lecture at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on whether neo-liberalism has a future, I was struck by the deficiency of the rush to psychological explanation. In seeking to analyse the supposed inadequacies of the free-market ideology, there is an increasing tendency to rely on psychology as the master discipline, the new ‘commmon sense’ that will unlock the secrets of collective human behaviour. Just as the neo-liberals championed the perfectly rational economic actor, homo economicus, who as an individual is unrecognisable from any other perfectly rational individual, so the latest commentators attempt to correct and complete the picture by pointing out that this vision misses out humanity’s essential irrationalism, epitomised by a host of psychological quirks – which set the bounds for Kahneman and Tversky’s bounded rationality. But whether for or against the unfettered free market, these supposedly conflicting approaches share much more than they disagree on: namely a confidence that what goes on in our heads is what it’s all about. Continue reading “Why Psychology fails to explain the Global Financial Crisis”

Why do we disagree about Climate Change?

In his foreword to a recent collection on the social construction of climate change, Nicholas Onuf writes:

‘As a social constructon, climate change is no one thing. Instead it is an ensemble of constitutive processes, yielding an ever changing panoply of agents and insitutions, fixed in place only for the moment.’ Mary E Pettenger (ed) 2007:xv

Yet in the arguments about climate change, the subject of the arguments is often taken as a given. We forget that just as the carbon dioxide emissions are of human origin, so is the very concept.

Now Prof Mike Hulme, founder of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, has written a book about climate change as a social, cultural, political, religious and ethical phenomenon,rather than a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’. In doing so he has drawn deeply from the well of Cultural Theory. The book refers repeatedly to the writings of Mary Douglas (especially Douglas and Wildavsky 1984), Michael Thompson (particularly Verweij and Thompson 2006) and numerous other cultural theorists, and has a Foreword by Steve Rayner. The book is much too stimulating and multi-faceted to summarise here, but in terms of policy implications the auther promotes Rayner’s idea of the need for ‘silver buckshot’ rather than ‘silver bullets’, and Verweij and Thompson’s idea of ‘clumsy solutions’ rather than elegant failures.

I’ve written from a similar perspective about climate change, and specifically on what we argue about when we argue about global warming.

Why we Disagree about Climate Change is a timely, wide ranging thoughtful and challenging contribution to the climate change debate. I think it will also stand as a highly accessible landmark text of ‘applied Cultural Theory’, much as Christopher Hood’s 1998 book on public management did a decade ago.  A review will follow.

Accountability is the problem, now what’s the solution?

Individualist social organisation operates on the assumption that accountability structures and measures are the problem, not the solution. They act as a brake on the forward momentum of heroic risk. Who dares wins. The only accountability required is clearly success or failure in the market. Accountability is an obstacle to success that needs to be overcome. On this view, it’s hard to see how accountability structures could be ‘reformed’. The only thing worth doing with accountability is to dismantle it.

Now that the dust of the global financial crisis is beginning to settle, one of the key lessons learned seems to be Continue reading “Accountability is the problem, now what’s the solution?”

Can Education reform cope with competing visions of fairness?

There has been some discussion recently about social mobility and parental school choice. This arose, in part, from a UK report on how to improve ‘fair access to the professions’.

The problem with almost all such reports and many such debates is that they assume we all agree on what counts as ‘fair’, that we know what ‘equal’ means. Furthermore, the very term ‘social mobility’ assumes we agree already about the nature of the social sphere, within which we move or stay put. Pointedly, we don’t agree. In reality, these words are the battleground of an ongoing cultural argument, which is illuminated, as I will show, by means of grid-group cultural theory. Continue reading “Can Education reform cope with competing visions of fairness?”

‘I think we won’: Mary Douglas Interview

Mary Douglas, anthropologist and originator of what became grid-group cultural theory, was interviewed in 2006 by Cambridge anthropologist Alan MacFarlane. An annotated video is part of a large series of fascinating interviews he has conducted over many years. Exerpts are posted at Youtube (see below),  The long version is worth watching to find out what illness Mary Douglas had when she wrote Purity and Danger. At the start of Part 2 she describes the influence of Basil Bernstein on the ideas behind Natural Symbols. She suggests that, following Bernstein, hierarchical social arrangements should perhaps be termed ‘positional’. Of her work with Aaron Wildavsky on risk  she says, “I think we won”.