What is it to be cultured?

Sunday 20 October, 3.30pm until 4.45pm, Garden Room Artistic Battles

Culture has a very wide range of meanings: from the anthropological sense of the culture of a people or nation to the more restricted sense of high culture, and the tradition of Western high culture in particular. But however we understand the word, there continues to be debate about whether culture is primarily something done to you or something you acquire through your own efforts. The latter sense – for example in the German Enlightenment theory of Bildung or character development through culture – emphasised a process of self-cultivation. The 20th century on the other hand threw up a number of ‘experiments in living’ – from the Bloomsbury Set to the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s – that saw bourgeois culture as something to be challenged or overcome. Often such movements situated their resistance in terms of a return to nature or through an emphasis on felt experience: sense rather than reason. Even so, most still assumed that culture was something human and something relatively recent: ie, stretching back about 3,000 years at the most.

But are these ideas, about the requirements of special education and hard work or struggle against indoctrination, just an unhelpful delusion? Increasingly evolutionary biologists argue that human societies across tens of thousands of years have created culture: in the form of song, drawings, cave paintings and carvings. The recent Ice Age exhibition at the British Museum might seem to suggest that the ‘modern mind’ was created 40,000 years ago and the evidence is in the bone carvings that survive. Perhaps culture is far more natural, and far more universal, than we may previously have thought, and its evolution across time - the changes in form and technique - may owe more to nature, and natural selection, than is often recognised. Is culture something that we can be (or not), or something that is? Do we choose to be cultured or does culture determine us?

Jill Cook
deputy keeper, head of prehistory, British Museum; curator, Ice Age Art: arrival of the modern mind

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Mark Pagel
professor of evolutionary biology, University of Reading; author, Wired for Culture: origins of the human social mind

Professor Raymond Tallis
fellow, Academy of Medical Sciences; author, philosopher, critic and poet; recent books include NHS SOS and Aping Mankind; chair, Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Dr Tiffany Jenkins writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there
Recommended readings
Cultural essentialism and cultural anxiety

There are alternative conceptions, visions, doctrines, ideologies, and discourses of a culture

R.D Grillo, Sage Publications, 2013

Culture is what separates us from the rest of the living world

I focus on the good side of culture because that is what differentiates us, and gives us our best reasons for being hopeful that we can master the destructive sides of our nature, and make life and the world something that is ever closer to utopia.

A C Grayling, New Statesman, 8 May 2013

Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation

What explains the staggering diversity of cultures in the world? Why are there so many languages, even within small areas? Why do we rejoice in rituals and wrap ourselves in flags?

Mark Pagel, Penguin, 28 March 2013

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind

This compelling narrative is also illustrated with a wealth of contextual images, from classical sculpture to twentieth‐century painting and even contemporary advertising campaigns, which demonstrate surprising aesthetic parallels between these ancient works and familiar modern pieces. In this way, Ice Age Art will bring home the point that the minds that created these objects in all their diversity and inventiveness were modern minds like our own, capable of highly sophisticated thought and expression.

Jill Cook, British Museum Press, 18 February 2013

A braindead view of free will

As Wired for Culture demonstrates, the greatest intellectual threats posed to freedom and autonomy today are those put up by evolutionary biologists and psychologists

Angus Kennedy, spiked, 27 December 2012

'Earliest' evidence of modern human culture found

The earliest unambiguous evidence for modern human behaviour has been discovered by an international team of researchers in a South African cave.

Nick Crumpton, BBC, 31 July 2012

Forget fittest, it's survival of the most cultured

‘We live inside

David Sloan Wilson, New Scientist, 5 March 2012

Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

While readily acknowledging the astounding progress neuroscience has made in helping us understand how the brain works, Tallis directs his guns at neuroscience s dark companion -- Neuromania, as he describes it -- the belief that brain activity is not merely a necessary but a sufficient condition for human consciousness and that consequently our everyday behaviour can be entirely understood in neural terms.

Raymond Tallis, Acumen, 3 June 2011

Bone Flute Is Oldest Instrument, Study Says

Music may have been one of the cultural accomplishments that gave the first European modern-human (Homo sapiens) settlers an advantage over their now extinct Neanderthal-human (Homo neanderthalis) cousins.

James Owen, National Geographic, 24 June 2009

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