“Learning from Animals
About: Dominique Guillo, Les Fondements oubliés de la culture. Une approche écologique, Seuil
by Antoine Doré & Jérôme Michalon, 19 March
translated by Michael C. Behrent
Neither the social sciences nor the natural sciences are currently invested in studying the cultural relations between humans and animals. If we are to understand them, we must reconsider all our categories, and free ourselves once and for all from the nature-culture divide.
To use the relationship between humans and animals to rethink culture: this is the goal of Dominique Guillo’s book. A sociologist and research director at the CNRS, Guillo offers a structured and thorough synthesis of more than a decade of research. A specialist in the history and epistemology of social sciences as they relate to life sciences, Guillo maintains that the way in which these two disciplinary domains have approached culture suffers from an identity bias, which prevents them from conceiving of the existence of cultures constructed by and between different animal species.
The identity bias diagnosis
Guillo devotes the book’s first three chapters to establishing this epistemological diagnosis. He gets the ball rolling with the natural sciences (behavioral ecology, ethology, and neo-Darwinian biology), in a first chapter that proposes a highly pedagogical synthesis of research from the past forty years on animal sociability and culture. First, we encounter the neo-Darwinians’ unusual definition of the social (i.e., behavior that seeks to perpetuate the genes of individuals other than their producers); then, an ethological definition of culture understood as a set of traits transmitted by social learning, rather than by the genetic mechanisms of natural selection.
Guillo thus calls for a better connection between the social and the natural sciences, as they seem to suffer from the same problem: their inability of studying culture except in terms of animal groups belonging to the same species (whether human or non-human). They suffer from a tropism or identity bias, apparent both in their research’s focus (intraspecific and intragroup relationships) and results (culture takes place solely between similar entities and accentuates their similarities to one another). Thus, according to Guillo, these “classic” approaches to culture proceed from (i.e., postulate) and produce (i.e., accentuate) shared identity. In a world in which understanding the interdependence of creatures as different as earthworms, whales, and molecules is becoming more and more crucial, identity bias constitutes a major epistemological obstacle.
This diagnosis of a forgetting of culture’s foundations, which is itself based on several omissions, is accompanied by over-adherence to the epistemology of the behavioral sciences. The sole definition of culture used and discussed in this book is borrowed from this discipline, as is Guillo’s key concept (social learning) and the regular appeal to “parsimony.” Furthermore, it is the social sciences rather than the behavioral sciences that the author holds responsible for the impossibility of a synthesis in the study of interspecific cultures. In contrast to what they assert, the social sciences are most inclined to validate the nature-culture dualism and the boundaries between disciplines, whether because of ideology or disciplinary loyalty. Conversely, sociobiology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary psychology, by considering humans as one living being among others, abolish the frontiers between these dualisms and appear, in Guillo’s account, as progressive theories, while the social sciences are noticeable only for their conservatism. He notes, for example, that by restricting cultural phenomena to identity, the social sciences risk fueling the rise of “’identitarian’ political discourses” (p. 302).”