How Cultural Anthropologists Redefined Humanity

Louis Menand at The New Yorker:

And yet the issues on which Boas and Mead made their interventions, issues around race and gender, are now at the center of public life, and they bring all the nature-nurture confusion back with them. The focus of the conversation today is identity, and identity seems to be a concept that lies beyond both culture and biology. Is identity innate, or is it socially constructed? Is it fated, or can it be chosen or performed? Are our identities defined by the existing state of social relations, or do we carry them with us wherever we go?

These questions suggest that the nature-culture debate was always misconceived. As Geertz pointed out years ago, it is human nature to have culture. Other species are programmed to “know” how to cope with the world, but our biological endowment evolved to allow us to choose how to respond to our environment. We can’t rely on our instincts; we need an instruction manual. And culture is the manual.

more here.