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Biocultural Theory

In the humanities, scholars have traditionally focused on culture as the sole causal factor constraining humans’ cultural behavior and productions, but converging evidence from a range of disciplines is revealing a more complex picture of humans as biocultural beings.

Human behavior is not just the product of culture, and it is not just the product of biology, either. Human behavior and human culture emerge from a complex interaction between genetic dispositions and environmental circumstances. Those environmental circumstances range from physical aspects of the biosphere to imaginary cultural constructs. This work package focuses on formulating a comprehensive biocultural theoretical paradigm, one that pays close attention to biology as well as culture as reciprocally causal factors in human evolutionary history.

Gene-Culture Coevolution

Culture includes the arts and sciences, technologies, economic and social practices, ideology, religion, political organization, and moral norms. Genetically transmitted dispositions prompt and constrain all these components of culture, and culture, in turn, over evolutionary time spans, has altered the human genome. That kind of reciprocal causation is what we call “gene-culture coevolution.”


The idea of gene-culture coevolution was introduced in the early eighties but has begun to generate collective and cumulative research only since the turn of the century. Within the next twenty years, it seems likely that research in gene-culture coevolution will produce some of the most important advances in an evolutionary understanding of the human species. Those advances will depend on work that synthesizes findings in biology, the social sciences, and the humanities.

Evolutionary anthropologists often cite lactose tolerance as an instance of gene-culture co-evolution. Through natural selection, herding peoples have evolved enzymes that enable adults to digest milk. The cultural practice of keeping cattle serves as a selective force that alters the gene pool in a given population, and in turn the altered gene pool encourages the expansion of a pastoral economy.

Cooking provides a more radical instance. Since cooked food requires less digestion than raw food, over evolutionary time scales, the practice of cooking food has reduced the size of the gut and freed up metabolic energy for the expanding human brain.

The larger human brain has in turn generated more technology, more complex social organization, and more imaginative culture such as music, graphic depiction, and story-telling. Cooking food is a cultural practice, but it depends on preceding anatomical adaptations: an upright gait that freed hands for actions like collecting wood and controlling fire.

                                  bipedal hominid couple

Bipedalism is arguably the first major adaptation separating the Australopiths from other primate species. We can thus describe a complete causal circle, from bipedalism, a biological adaptation, to cooking food, a cultural practice, to the reduced gut and enlarged human brain (biological adaptations), to social practices (sharing food around a campfire) that again altered the human genome, producing a selective advantage to prosocial, cooperative dispositions.

                  hominids around a fire

Anatomy, technology, social behavior, and cultural imagination form feedback loops, each affecting the other. The ultimate shape of the human evolutionary trajectory is something like a widening spiral, expanding biocultural interactions without ever breaking the link between biology (body and brain) and cultural practices like tool-making and telling stories.

           !Kung San telling a story

From about ten thousand years ago, living in settled communities, keeping domesticated animals, and growing crops form a watershed in human ecology. These cultural practices had powerful effects on the human genome--effects ranging from lactose tolerance and resistance to infectious diseases to selective pressure for enhanced long-term planning and increased docility.

agricultural revolution

Post-agricultural societies display complex social structures with hierarchical organization, specialization of tasks, and institutions for enforcement of behavioral norms. Religions, ideologies, and the arts serve as mediums through which these more complex social structures become part of the collective, shared imagination of the individual people who make up a society.

Throughout human evolution and human history, the means of provisioning have interacted with the modes of reproduction and social organization, and these modes, different in different times and places, interact with the way humans imagine their lives and the world in which they live.

industrial revolution

Biology, the Social Sciences, and the Humanities

Advances in biocultural theory will depend on collective efforts among biologists, social scientists, and humanists. Geneticists and evolutionary biologists are in the best position to identify changes in gene-frequencies relevant to human social and cultural activity. Social scientists, including anthropologists and archeologists, are in the best position to delineate the elementary forces at work in human social organization over both evolutionary and historical time scales. Humanists are in the best position to identify the character and structure of the products of the imagination—religions, ideologies, stories, music, and the visual arts—that interact in reciprocally causal ways with the evolved dispositions commonly designated by the term “human nature.” Researchers in any of these three areas can assimilate findings from the other two areas, characterize the current state of knowledge, and generate new hypotheses that stimulate further research.

Biocultural Research for a Biocultural Species

Psychology tends to be ahistorical, working in synchronic schemas heavily oriented to contemporary populations, often a very small subset of contemporary populations. Evolutionary psychology occupies itself primarily with deep history, history on evolutionary time scales. Earlier phases of evolutionary psychology concentrated on the species-typical characteristics that were supposed to have become more or less fixed at some not very determinate point in the ancestral past. Both biases—the fixation on the present and the fixation on a historically unvarying human nature—have illuminated important basic features of human behavior but have also slighted the emergent complexities of distinct cultures, distinct ecologies, and distinct historical periods. In contrast, cultural anthropologists, along with most contemporary literary scholars, have given an almost exclusive emphasis to specific cultures or culturally specific periods. For many of the historicists, there is no human nature, only distinct cultures. For many of the evolutionists, there has been no history, only a universal human nature.

The next major phase in our understanding of human nature is likely to come from scholars and scientists finding ways to investigate interactions between the biological and cultural parts of our nature. Fruitful research in that vein would combine ecological, socioeconomic, and political analysis of a particular society with an analysis of that society’s imaginative culture, its ideologies, religions, philosophies, and literary and artistic practices. That kind of research would also incorporate general principles for large-scale social and political structures across historical time. Ultimately, that kind of research would identify causal links between particular cultural ecologies and the basic elements of human nature—motives, emotions, features of personality, and forms of cognition.

We are a biocultural species, but we have only just begun to conduct biocultural research.

whats it all about

It could be my imagination



Recent articles

2014.10.22 | Visit, Biocultural theory

Joseph Carroll is Bioculture Visiting Professor in 2015

The Centre for Biocultural History is happy to announce that Aarhus University's Research Foundation is sponsoring Professor Joseph Carroll, University of Missouri at St Louis, as a visiting professor at Aarhus University from January 2015 until June 2015.

2014.02.14 | Media coverage, Biocultural theory

Darwin and evolution on Danish TV2

Bioculture members Casper Andersen, Mathias Clasen & Peter C. Kjærgaard with evolution friends talk about Darwin and evolution on Danish TV2

Team members

  • Assistant Professor Mathias Clasen (Group Leader), Centre for Biocultural History, Aarhus University; Department of Aesthetics and Communication, Aarhus University
  • Professor Joseph Carroll, Visiting Bioculture Professor, Centre for Biocultural History, Aarhus University; University of Missouri--St. Louis
  • Emelie Jonsson, visiting PhD student, Centre for Biocultural History, Aarhus University; Department of Languages and Literatures, Gothenburg University
  • Professor Peter C. Kjærgaard, Director of Centre for Biocultural History, Aarhus University
  • Associate Professor Alexandra R. Kratschmer, Centre for Biocultural History, Aarhus University; Department of Aesthetics and Communication, Aarhus University
  • Luseadra McKerracher, visiting PhD student, Centre for Biocultural History, Aarhus University; Simon Fraser University, Canada
  • Associate Professor Felix Riede, Centre for Biocultural History, Aarhus University; Department of Culture and Society, Aarhus University; Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University