Anthropological Concept of Culture

The Anthropological Concept of Culture in the Context of Evolutionary Debates

Maria Kronfeldner

Darwin’s explanation of the evolution of species strongly encouraged biologists and others to integrate the human in the natural world as just another animal. Culture has often been used to resist such attempts. Such resistance necessarily presupposes a certain concept of culture. But it is important to realize that the concept of culture—used to save humans from such an integration—might well have changed during the course of such attempts at integration. These changes were the subject of Maria Kronfeldner's research.

Kronfeldner's work concentrated on the emergence of the modern anthropological concept of culture, initiated by Franz Boas (1858–1942) and further developed by Alfred L. Kroeber (1876–1960) and others. This concept of culture relies heavily on a sharp distinction between culture and nature, i.e., between cultural and biological heredity. In addition, according to Kroeber—and historians of anthropology—this distinction relies on the falsity of the Lamarckian idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics. She used this as a starting point to investigate how changes in ideas about biological heredity influenced the history of the concept of culture, and vice versa.

Maria Kronfeldner mainly looked at the years between 1883, when Weismann first attacked the idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics, and 1917, when Kroeber published The Superorganic, the most well-known formulation of his cultural determinism. Kroeber’s cultural determinism is the climax of the conceptual "segregation" of culture and nature that is partly a reaction to hereditarian thinking, whether in its racist or eugenicist version. In summary, Kronfeldner's research tried to uncover the continuous interrelatedness of the history of the concept of heredity, the history of the concept of culture, and the history of hereditarian thinking.

Funding Institutions

Liechtenstein Foundation for History of Science