Culture Goes All The Way Down

I read on Andrew Sullivan’s blog today this story by Paul Bloom.  Sullivan quotes the following snippet:

[O]ur initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind. There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.


The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go.

This presents a few problems, however, that the author doesn’t seem to dwell on nearly enough.

First, I do not doubt that there is something in us as biological beings that predisposes us to group-identification.  As a friend once told me, “We are basically a society of complicated monkeys.”  And monkeys, like humans, inhabit social worlds — and social worlds, eventually, will genetically select for those who adapt to living in social worlds.

But to act as if this selection is the ONLY thing going 0n for a baby, that genetics is predisposing us to be mistrustful of those who are different, and that culture can intercede to “fix” the problem, well, that’s facile.  It misses the deeper interplay between culture and genetics.

For instance, take the assertion that three-month olds prefer the race of the faces most familiar to them.  I will hazard a guess that after a baby is born, he or she will see many people — friends, relatives, family, well-wishers.  The fact that most of your family shares your race and that a great many of your friends are whatever you are too will surely impact the color of the skin a baby sees most often — and the fact that your family and friends share your race is significantly shaped by culture.  In other words, while a baby may be predisposed to prefer those they see often, genetics hasn’t determined who they see often: the shape of their social world does that for them.  Babies, after all, are very rarely capable of striking out on their own for new experiences and new people.  I only say “very rarely” because I watched Rugrats, and those were some resourceful babies.  (And how many of the Rugrats were white?  It may sound like a flippant question — but even if you have a rainbow assortment of friends, the images your child is getting from television and billboards and so forth undoubtedly impact a child’s view of the world.)

And “12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their language”?  WHAT?  How does this have anything to do with inborn traits or some sort of genetic predisposition — THIS IS LANGUAGE.  LANGUAGE IS CULTURAL BY DEFINITION.  I know 2-year olds who have yet to speak, yet alone “have a language.”  How are 12-month-olds even supposed to express a preference in the language their instructors are speaking?  Perhaps 12-month-olds are simply only vaguely figuring out the predominant language surrounding them, and are self-selecting for what they know rather than what is obscurer to them — but this has nothing to do with an “initial moral sense” and everything to do with culture.

As a final point: “wearing different-colored t-shirts” is far from an “arbitrary scheme.”  We do it every single day in this country:

It's a agaslfjasbg;agafsd

Which is to say: if our culture was really interested in shaping itself in terms of “generality and universality” as some sort of principle set over and against our inborn desires to be little racists/sexists/xenophobes, our culture would actually stop dividing its children into different colored t-shirts, teaching its children that “it’s are country so SPEEK ENGLICH,” and putting African-Americans on billboards only when selling products with “Jazz” somewhere in the brand name.  Until then, I’m far from convinced that our cultural morality is geared significantly towards liberation of people and peoples.

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