Understanding Biology Through Anthropology

Nature vs. Nurture is an immediate phrase that comes to mind when considering human biology through the lens of anthropology. In fact, it is one of the driving forces in understanding human beings and human nature. But what more and more anthropologists as well as scientists have been discovering is that our biology is far far more influenced by culture than we previously thought. Samuel Taylor-Alexander attended a conference about biodeterminism and wrote an article outlining some of the questions asked and topics explored by presenters at the conference. These questions and topics argued the idea that perhaps human beings are less controlled by biology than previously thought.

This makes me wonder how much of me was and is created by culture, and not by simple and un-alterable pre-determined biology as I was taught. My social anxiety, my gender, my sex; how much of this has been determined by the culture around me? As Taylor-Alexander pointed out in his article, conviction of already having the answer is one of the most dangerous and debilitating hinderances to science. Teaching people that aspects of their human-ness are defined by things that simply cannot be changed might be very harmful, but many see no problem with it because it’s what’s always been done.

If steps are taken to look at what was previously understood to be pre-destined by genetic makeup through an anthropological lens, new answers could be found as to the way our bodies and our sense of self are composed. We should not limit ourselves to one way of thinking simply because that’s the way we’ve always thought. Nurture might have more power over nature than we thought.

Reference: Conference Synopsis: The End of biodeterminism? New Directions for Medical Anthropology by Samuel Taylor-Alexander

Abstracts from the conference from the AARHUS University website


4 thoughts on “Understanding Biology Through Anthropology

  1. Although our physical appearance, gender, and genetic make up encompasses a large part of who we are, the way in which we are brought up has a greater impact. In this case, nature overrides nurture. I believe that the way in which every single person in the world acts, is directly related to their culture and what is socially acceptable, rather than their human nature derived from birth. This is a very interesting topic as it can be studied in detail with ethnographic research, especially within two different cultures. Overall, I believe nurture has a greater impact and influence on who we each are as individuals than nature.

    • I’m sorry, do you mean nurture has more of an impact than nature? As in, the way people are influenced by the people around them has more bearing upon a person than their pre-disposed biological makeup? That’s what you seem to be saying, and I think your argument makes a lot of sense. Also, I think it would be important to point out that many of the things you point out as being “nature” oriented in your opening sentence (physical appearance, gender, and genetic makeup) can all be considered social/cultural constructions. Interesting, isn’t it?

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post, as it is one of the greatest debates, in my opinion. Nurture is one of the most important aspects regarding culture – We are shaped by the way we are raised, there is no doubt about it. But I think that nurture and nature are always tied together in some way. Nature creates who were are structurally (our biological sex), but nurture creates how we perceive those structures, and how we define characteristics as “male” and as “female”. It was interesting to read about the third gender systems in Thailand (lady boys) and India (hijras), where nurture has allowed different groups of people to be accepting to these ambiguous genders. I agree- it is very difficult to determine where the line is drawn between nature and nurture, because the two are very dependent on each other: Where there is nature, there is nurture, and where there is nurture, there is nature.

  3. Nature vs. Nurture is a topic that has been debated in many different fields of study such as psychology, anthropology and sociology. Most people simply debate nature, your genes and physical make up, vs. nurture, the people who raised you. I personally think that people are shaped by a combination of nature, nurture and culture. Where we are raised, and the culture we are raised in affects our beliefs, and the way we see the world. There are many different ethnography in anthropology that prove how culture can shape someones personality. Different cultures shape people in different ways, and many practices would not be accepted cross-culturally. For instance, in Nigeria young women are sent to sit in rooms and eat starchy foods for months. In the Nigerian culture, if a father is able to send their daughter to a fattening room, they are considered wealthy. In American culture however, we display wealth by being healthy, and buying expensive things, such as cars and houses. In our culture, someone who is fat is not always seen to be wealthily whereas in the Nigerian culture, where food constitutes luxery, being fat is seen as an indication of wealth. In both of these places, culture affects peoples opinions of what wealth means, and how it is displayed. People are not simply constructed by their genetic make-up or where they were raised. Genes, culture, and family shape who they grow up to be.

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