Does Culture Drive Human Behavior More Than Genetics?

Biologists say that behavior is ultimately determined by natural selection.

This is because genetic structures are constructed according to the mental processes and learned patterns and responses to different environments.

As Richerson and Boyd, authors of Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, note: physiological changes that shape behavior are evolutionary.

Take bird migration, for instance.

Instead of passing winter in harsh environments, birds have acquired their migratory behavior according to evolutionary physiological reactions.

The brain has formed evolutionary strategies across time to send hormonal signals that trigger annual migration to warmer climates.

So, while genes may determine the traits and behaviors best suited to the environment, the environment has helped shape these genes. 

Where does culture come into play?

Culture is part of the environment, especially where humans are concerned.

Culture Drives Human Evolution

Taking the environment’s impact on evolution a step further, in a study by the University of Maine, culture was found to drive human evolution even more so than genetics.

According to the 2021 study by researchers, Tim Waring and Zach Wood, humans adapt to their environment and challenges in their environment via culture – in the form of learned knowledge, skills, and practices –more effectively and at a faster pace than through genetics.

One reason for this “special evolutionary transition” is that the cultural transfer of knowledge is flexible and fast when compared to genetic transfer.

Waring notes that:

“Gene transfer is rigid and limited to the genetic information of two parents, while cultural transmission is based on flexible human learning and effectively unlimited with the ability to make use of information from peers and experts far beyond parents.”

This results in a stronger adaptation via cultural evolution than genetic evolution allows.

The researchers also argue that culture’s group-oriented nature produces more group-oriented evolution as well.

Ways in Which Humans Have Evolved

How have humans evolved via culture?

Humans have adapted in several key ways over the millennia.

These include:

  • Capacity for social learning
  • Predisposition to be cooperative
  • Capacity to collaborate
  • Diminishing aggression

Genetics and culture work together to adapt behaviors, but as Waring and Wood’s research suggests, culture is becoming even more influential on the evolution of human behavior.

As Waring concludes:

“This research explains why humans are such a unique species…We are slowly becoming ever more cultural and ever less genetic.”

Nature Vs. Nurture & Cultural Evolution

Language is culture. Food is culture. Customs are culture.

They are all taught. They are all shaped and communicated across generations through group orientation and primary socialization.

In the book, Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, authors Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd explain that some scientists argue that culture and human behavior cannot be tied to evolutionary theory and biology, quoting the concept of nature versus nurture.

Culture is something created via nurture, while biology is formed by nature.

An individual’s concept of time, her values and customs, her language – all of this is formed by the environment in which she grows up.

It is nurtured.

An individual’s eye color, his height, any genetic disease he may have – all of this is formed by genes.

It is the result of nature. 

Considering this, many argue that evolutionary theory does not come into play in regards to learned behaviors that are shaped by the environment.

As we’ve discussed in many blog posts, cultural behaviors – and most other human behavior – is learned; therefore, the argument is that biology has little to do with creating it.

But Richerson and Boyd suggest that this is not the case, due to the symbiotic nature of genes and their environment.

Genes & the Environment Interact

Genes are not blueprints specifying an organism’s final draft.

Instead, the genetic information stored in an organism interacts with the environment around it while the organism is developing.

As Richerson and Boyd describe it:

“Genes are like a recipe, but one in which the ingredients, cooking temperature, and so on are set by the environment.”

And like any recipe, the traits of the organism will vary based on the differences in the environment.

Some traits are more affected by environment than others.

For instance, most humans develop two ears, despite the environment they’ve grown in, but depending on their nutritional environment during youth, they can develop different growth and health outcomes into adulthood.

Environmental differences can also cause differing behaviors in organisms that are genetically the same.

In such circumstances, the environment is the direct cause of different traits and behaviors.

And because culture is both a part of the environment and a reaction to it, while genes are the evolutionary response to past environments, neither can be removed from the equation.

They are symbiotic.

We’ll take a closer look at the degree to which genes and culture influence human behavior next week.

Population Thinking: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Contributes to Cultural Theory

Charles Darwin is best known for his theories of evolution and natural selection.

But biologist Ernst Mayr asserts that Darwin’s concept of “population thinking” is his most important contribution to biology.

In the book, How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, authors Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd delve into why this is the case.

This is what they’ve found.

The Theory of Evolution Evolves Our Thinking

Prior to Darwin’s theories on evolution, species were thought to be static and unchanging.

But what Darwin found was that a fluctuating pool of inherited information was passed on across generations over time, and this information was affected by the daily events of the species’ lives, which were also changing.

The persistence of the daily events and the spread of their prevalence would produce inherent properties and traits within a species.

In line with natural selection, those traits that allowed the “survival of the fittest” were passed on to their offspring.

Not only traits, but behaviors that benefited survival – a process Darwin called “the inherited effects of use and disuse.”

In this way, the core of the evolutionary theory is grounded in population thinking, which is the crux of cultural theory.

Cultural Evolution

Culture is an acquired state of behavior, produced via social learning.

Skills, values, norms, beliefs, attitudes, customs, moral systems – these are all acquired and comprise group culture.

And they all evolve via population thinking.

Like the theory of evolution, this theory of cultural evolution delves into why some attitudes and behaviors carry on in a group and others don’t.

As with evolution, the daily lives of people in a society contribute to the process of cultural change.

For instance, a moral value might, at one point in time, appear more appealing in relation to that era’s daily life or current events, thereby spreading and persisting from person to person in a society and generation to generation in a culture.

Similarly, beliefs and behaviors that are more easily imitable and allow survival will spread, while those that might result in group criticism or early death will vanish.

Over time, the persistence of certain beliefs, skills, attitudes, etc., create observable patterns that serve as the genes of culture.

But culture can adapt in a way that genes cannot.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll talk about how population thinking is enmeshed in culture.

3, 2, 1….New Year’s Traditions From Around the World

As we bid farewell to 2021 and greet the new year, let’s count down these New Year’s traditions from around the world.

You might just want to adopt some to give yourself a leg up in 2022.

Scotland: First Footing

In Scottish culture, New Year’s Eve is such an important holiday that it has a special name: Hogmanay.

Hogmanay is believed to come from the French, “hoginane,” which means “gala day.”

One of the most interesting Hogmanay traditions is called “first footing.”

If you hope to have good luck in the new year, then you want the first person to cross your home’s threshold after midnight to be a dark-haired man. 

This concept originates from the Viking era when an ax-wielding light-haired man appearing on your doorstep generally meant pillaging.

Thus, the opposing dark-haired man means good fortune – especially if they come bearing symbolic gifts of salt, shortbread, coal, and, of course, Scottish whisky.

Spain: Twelve Lucky Grapes

If you happen to be in Spain (or various Latin American countries) on New Year’s Eve, you’ll likely participate in “las doce uvas de la suerte” (“the twelve lucky grapes”).

This holiday tradition involves eating a dozen grapes, one for each month of the year, at the stroke of midnight. 

The tradition dates back to the 19th century and is based in commercialism.

With the aim to sell more grapes at the year’s end, Alicante vineyards created and promoted the ritual.

The tradition has since acquired rules: you must eat a grape at each toll of the clock, allowing you about a second to consume each of them. 

Those who finish all twelve grapes by the time the tolls end (no cheating!) will have good luck in the new year…if they don’t choke.

Japan: Year-Crossing Noodles

As 2021 turns to 2022, get your slurp on in Japan with toshikoshi soba.

Meaning “year-crossing noodles,” the custom involves eating a bowl of this special soba noodle in the new year in the hopes to enjoy a long and healthy life.

The length of the noodle and the resilient buckwheat plant used to make it represent these ideals.

The softer noodle is also easier to break, symbolizing “breaking off the old year” and parting with its troubles.

The tradition dates back centuries to the Kamakura period, where a Buddhist temple gave out soba to the poor on New Year’s, a concept that later turned into a ritual all over Japan.

Whatever traditions you choose to celebrate on New Year’s, I wish you good fortune and health in 2022!

Happy New Year!

Christmas Around the World: Interesting Cultural Christmas Characters & Traditions

In honor of the holiday, let’s take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to visit different cultural Christmas characters and traditions from around the world.

We’ll stop off in Italy to sweep up with La Belfana, in the Netherlands to try on shoes with Sinterklaas and, of course, in Austria, to whip through the snowy streets with Krampus.

Hop on Sinterklaas’ trusty steed, Amerigo, and let’s admire the world of Christmas culture!

Belfana in Italy

Image Credit: Naturpuur

The folkloric La Befana is a Christmas witch that is said to have been invited by the Three Wise Men to deliver gifts to the Christ child.

After refusing the invitation, she had a change of heart and tried to follow the Magi in their journey but, unfortunately, couldn’t catch up.

She never did meet Jesus, but she gave all the gifts intended for him to other children, and her kindhearted nature is still celebrated in Italy today.

Instead of leaving out cookies for Santa, some leave out a glass of wine or panettone for La Befana to kick back after she fills their stockings.

The good witch even sweeps up the home before flying off on her broomstick.

Sinterklaas in the Netherlands

Sinterklaas may be the nearest on this list to most cultures’ traditional idea of Santa Claus. 

He is the Dutch depiction of Saint Nicholas, the Greek bishop on whom Santa Claus is based.

But unlike the American version, the Dutch Sinterklaas rides not a sleigh with reindeer but a white horse named Amerigo. And all his helpers are not called elves but rather “the Peters.”

Sinterklaas wears a red cape and miter and delivers gifts and treats to children’s shoes, which they place near the chimney or back door. 

Most of Sinterklaas’ gifts are of the sweet variety, including marzipan, spiced biscuits, and gingerbread men.

Krampus in Austria

What would a Christmas character list be without a cameo from Krampus?

While most of the world has Father Christmas or jolly Ol’ Saint Nick, Austria went another way.

Each year, the country scares the life out of children with St. Nick’s evil counterpart and accomplice, the ghoul that is Krampus.

The son of Norse goddess, Hel, Krampus is derived from the word for “claw” (krampen) in German.

Santa may have a list of children who are “naughty” or “nice,” offering only coal to the former, but Krampus acts on punishing bad behavior. 

Krampus is said to haunt the streets of Austria in search of bad children – and many actually don his fanged and horned mask, carrying birch tree branches to “whip” the naughty into shape.

The worst of these children, he carries back to his lair in the underworld.

So, “you’d better watch out, you’d better not cry,” because Krampus is coming to town.

Cultural Bodyclock: How to Adjust to Polychronic or Monochronic Time Perception

Research by Harvard Business Review found that

“between 10% and 20% of all U.S. managers sent abroad returned early because of job dissatisfaction or difficulties in adjusting to a foreign country.”

One of the primary adjustments to make as a manager in a foreign country is adjusting one’s bodyclock to the culture’s time perception.

As we’ve learned these past few weeks, polychronic and monochronic cultures operate according to clocks that have been set very differently – not just in two different time zones, but more like in two different space-time continuums.

Polychronic cultures have a more fluid view of time, while in monochronic cultures, time is linear.

If you’re sent to manage a company in another country, you might need to acquire – or at least adjust to – their view of time.

But you can’t just reset your watch, so how do you make these adjustments actionable?

Being a Monochron

For those coming from a polychronic culture into a monochronic culture, you might proactively focus on these aspects of time perception:

  • Punctuality and organization – both the manager and the staff know their schedule in advance and are expected to be prompt at meetings. Punctuality is key to keeping everything else on track, like a well-oiled machine.
  • Time management tools – many countries in monochronic cultures use time management tools to keep joint calendars as a team and stay on task. Tools like Scoro, Asana, and Trello come to mind.
  • Linear activities – monochronic time systems move one step at a time. Once one task is completed and accounted for, an employee can move onto the next, ensuring focus and efficiency.
  • Individual drive and achievement – individual successes are celebrated, both personally and by the company (think “employee of the month”). This motivates personal drive and performance.
  • Meeting deadlines – deadlines in monochronic cultures are hard stops. Work is expected to be completed promptly by deadline in a task-oriented fashion.

If you, as a polychron, can tune into these time- and motivation-related aims, you will be a more successful manager in a monochronic culture.

Being a Polychron

For those coming from a monochronic culture into a polychronic culture, you might proactively focus on these aspects of time perception.

  • Interactionrelationships and personal connections are a normal part of the workday. While tasks are set, personal interaction with colleagues and clients is expected and often prioritized.
  • Integrated activities – multitasking is common, and tasks are completed in an integrated and often leisurely fashion, with those who have finished their tasks pulling in to help others.
  • Group effort – as mentioned above, tasks are more often a group effort, as polychronic businesses often have a flat management structure where peer support is encouraged. Thus, individual recognition isn’t so important as group recognition.
  • Flexibility – there is a more flexible agenda in polychronic cultures, with employees not worrying too much about a hard deadline.
  • High context communication – all crucial information is shared, along with background information, and often in a manner where tone and visual cues are emphasized and interpreted.

When stepping into another culture’s time perception, making pointed actionable adjustments will help you adjust your bodyclock in a concrete way to a foreign culture.

Nature’s Timeline: Polychrons and Time Perception

A new factory opened up in Alaska, and several Inuits were hired on to work.

To alert everyone to the workday schedule, a whistle would ring throughout the factory.

When it was time for lunch, the whistle. Before a fifteen-minute break, whistle. When the workday was over, whistle.

By the end of the week, every single Inuit had quit. They could not abide by this angry whistle.

Their culture is not run according to a rigid schedule but rather by the tides. 

The tides are what dictate human activities, particularly harvesting mussels in the ice sheets when the tide is low.

So to the Inuits, time and human activity are determined by nature…not by man and his whistle. 

Last week, we talked about how monochrons value time as something tangible.

But for polychrons, time is valued on a whole different scale.

Polychronic Time

Consider a race track.

Several horses run on the same track at different speeds, each in their own lane.

This is similar to how polychrons view time.

Often, in a polychron’s mind, there are several simultaneous lanes on the same track: different tasks, running at the same time on their own lanes.

One lane has a work agenda, with tasks approximately scheduled.

Another has a personal agenda, with relationships being of equal import as work.

There is a push-and-pull between various mental lanes in a polychron’s timeline track.

Polychrons and Agendas

Polychrons view human relationships and quality time as more important than cost-priority issues.

If you attend a meeting in a country with a polychronic time perception, like Mexico or India, for example, you should not expect the meeting’s agenda to start on time.

Instead, what you should expect is to partake in a long period of socializing before the meeting even starts, usually over tea or coffee. 

This is to build rapport and start off on the right foot.

Before modern industrialization, this is how many European countries perceived time too.  

Running a tight ship, schedule-wise, was not so essential to the bottom line, whereas personal interaction was commonplace and just as important as the agenda.

You can still see this in the cultures of southern European countries, like Italy or Spain.

Polychrons and Deadlines/Appointments

There is no deadline obsession in polychronic cultures. 

Due to not prioritizing deadlines, other scheduled tasks are then delayed as well.

Those who expect something done in polychronic cultures take these delays easier than a monochron might. They are not put off or annoyed by the delays, because they accept this is how things go.

Though a task might go over the scheduled time in a polychronic culture, it will usually be completed…just within its own time.

Appointment times too are an approximation.

Although everyone will be seen, it likely won’t be as per schedule.

Polychron vs. Monochron

Considering these vastly different perceptions of time, you can see why polychronic and monochronic cultures might butt heads when it comes to business matters.

Next week, we’ll talk more about how to bridge the divide.

“Time is Money”: Monochrons and Time Perception

A German manager was sent to Honduras to monitor a factory for his company.

Every single day, the factory workers showed up a half-hour late.

He held a meeting with the workers and brought this issue up, expecting to see some changes.

Nothing.

He created an incentive for being on time, offering a raise at year’s end to those who were punctual.

Nothing.

He implemented a sliding scale of punishment for tardiness, with a three-strike rule.

Nothing.

He laid down the law and fired a worker who was exceptionally late on a regular basis.

Still, the next day, workers did not punch in on time.

No matter how often he insisted that they be punctual, nothing changed.

He complained to his Honduran co-manager about this issue, and she shrugged, saying, “They may be late, but at least they show up. That, in and of itself, is rare.”

This is where monochrons and polychrons butt heads, and the frustration is very real.

Last week, we touched on the differences between monochronic and polychronic cultures.

This post will go into deeper detail about what to expect from monochronic employees or managers.

What to Expect from a Monochron

As the above example shows, monochrons – whose cultures are prominently found in Northern Europe, North America, and parts of Asia – are time-sensitive.

Time is strictly divided: there is a time for fun and a time for work.

As Project Management Institute describes it, monochrons treat time as:

“a commodity of high value, as necessary as or perhaps even more important than satisfaction, good work, and relationships.”

Time is as tangible as any other commodity, as the phrase, “Time is money,” suggests.

Time can be wasted. It can be saved. It can be killed. It can be lost. It can won.

This perspective of time results in monochrons having a stricter and more stressful relationship with the clock and, as such, they try to use their time effectively, often focusing on completing one task at a time.

As studies show, doing so is actually a more productive use of time than multitasking.

Studies indicate that multitasking is less efficient because we are less focused, resulting in shallower learning and lower achievement and productivity. 

In fact, one study showed that only 2.5 percent of people are effective multitaskers.

The fact that monochronic cultures eschew multitasking for a more focused approach indicates that they are instinctively making the most effective use of time.

A monochron’s linear thinking and proclivity to strict schedules, with a focus on one event following another (think a timetable or meeting agenda, etc.), exemplifies this.

Get It Done

Monochrons emphasize getting things done.

Punctuality. Precision. Productivity.

These are the keys to success in a monochronic culture.

Managing time to use it more efficiently results in greater productivity and, thus, greater success.

So, here’s a pro tip if you are attending a meeting with an international colleague: understand their time perspective and meet their expectations.

If they are from a monochronic culture, arrive early, be prepared, and adhere to the agenda.

“Hawaiian Time” vs. “Haole Time”: When Monochronic and Polychronic Time Perspectives Collide

You’ve just moved to Hawaii, and your new associate wants to schedule a meetup tomorrow to go over the basics.

They tell you, “Let’s meet at 3 o’clock, ‘Hawaiian time’.”

You show up at three o’clock, on the dot. 

By 3:05, you’re looking at your watch.

By 3:15, you’re tapping your foot.

By 3:35, you’re considering throwing in the towel.

Your associate finally arrives at 3:43, looking unhurried and surprised by your clear exasperation.

When you mention the scheduled meetup time, they laugh and say, “I did say, ‘Hawaiian time’?”

Little did you know, “Hawaiian time” means “island time” – in other words, the schedule is lax, and a meeting will start whenever the attendees happen to roll on up.

Had your new associate said, “Let’s meet at three o’clock, ‘Haole time’,” you could have expected them to show up at 3 o’clock, as stipulated.

The term, “haole,” is slang for non-native Hawaiians or Caucasian Westerners, who culturally have a much stricter value of time.

This type of cultural collision is bound to occur when the time orientations and/or perspectives of associated cultures don’t align, which can happen even across different cultures in a single assimilated country, as this example illustrates.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent some time (no pun intended) discussing time orientation: past, present, future, and timeline.

These orientations fall into different time perspectives – monochronic and polychronic – and, as with time orientations, the corresponding cultural values and norms vary.

Let’s take a brief look at how.

Monochronic Cultural Proclivities

Monochronic cultures often have a linear or timeline/future orientation.

You might find people of monochronic cultures to be more inclined toward the following:

  • Completing one task at a time
  • Focusing on the task at hand
  • Following strict deadlines or schedules
  • Requiring information and being low-context
  • Being work-oriented and committed to tasks at hand
  • Being committed to plans
  • Viewing ownership and privacy as important
  • Promoting timeliness, despite circumstances or relationships
  • Tending toward practical relationships that are often short-lived

As you can see, monochronic cultures value strict timelines more than anything, as doing so makes the trains run on time.

Conclusion: if you’re working with or in a monochronic culture, you’ll succeed in a timely manner.

Polychronic Cultural Proclivities

Polychronic cultures often have a past orientation.

You might find people of polychronic cultures to be more inclined toward the following::

  • Multitasking
  • Focusing on events occurring around them
  • Aiming for results, goals, and objectives
  • Possessing information and being high-context
  • Being relationship-oriented
  • Being flexible with plans
  • Viewing networking and community as important
  • Promoting relationships and circumstances over timeliness
  • Tending toward lifelong relationships and family ties

As you can see, relationships matter more than time in polychronic cultures.

Conclusion: if you’re working with or in a polychronic culture, you’ll succeed by preserving the relationship.

Seeing as these values and norms vary so greatly, working cross-culturally with polychronic or monochronic cultures can require some understanding and finessing.

We’ll talk more in-depth about each time perspective in the upcoming weeks.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Timeline-Oriented Cultures View Time

Do you have the time to talk about time?

You should, because understanding cultural concepts of time matters a great deal to cross-cultural relations.

Time-orientation researchers Alexander Gonzalez and Phillip Zimbardo wrote:

“Every child learns a time perspective that is appropriate to the values and needs of his society.”

Time is directly linked to a society’s values and needs. It is of the utmost importance to cultural understanding.

As we’ve discussed these past few weeks, the way a society views time can explain a lot about their cultural baobab.

For instance, those who are past-oriented value tradition; those who are present-oriented value instant gratification; and those who are future-oriented value goals and long-term benefits.

One last type of time orientation is timeline cognitivity.

Let’s take a look at how timeline-oriented cultures view and value time.

Timeline-Oriented Values

“Time is a wave or a black hole could not bend it; humanity rides the crest of an infinite number of waves that are perceived as linear in their limited frame of reference.” ― Ken Poirot

Timelines are linear, as are timeline-oriented cultures.

They view everything in linear terms with a linear frame of reference.

Individuals in such societies tend to be very detail-oriented but struggle to absorb and understand multiple events simultaneously.

Timeline-oriented cultures also tend to be monochronic, completing one task at a time.

Individuals from such cultures are generally not prone to multitasking.

Monochronic, timeline-oriented cultures value schedules and demonstrate strict time management.

The Devil is in the Details

Differing views on time influence global communications and affairs, necessitating some cross-cultural understanding and diplomacy on the matter.

When it comes to managing or negotiating across cultures, some knowledge of and practice in dealing with these differences in time perspectives and communication styles is key to succeeding in business.