Published online by Cambridge University Press: 29 December 2009
‘That complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of “society”’(Tylor, 1871)
‘The way we do things’(McGrew, 2003b)
There is no consensual definition of culture, even in anthropology, which invented the idea. Further, no mainstream definition of culture has been conceived with a view to tackling the main issue of this book: the prospect of humanlike culture existing in nonhuman species. Instead, it is usually assumed in anthropology that culture is uniquely human, as discussed in the last chapter, and as exemplified by Tylor's classic definition quoted above (‘acquired by man’).
Let us deconstruct Tylor further, as a way of starting to seek a useful definition for the task at hand. His definition seems to have three elements: culture as entity (‘complex whole’), culture as content (‘knowledge, belief, etc.’), and culture as collective (‘member of society’).
To take the middle one first, there is a handy list of five specified examples, plus a catch-all closing phrase (‘any other capabilities and habits’) that suggest that anything and everything human is cultural. This is neat, but is the antithesis of discriminatory: is there anything that humans do, or are, that is not cultural, and so might be shared with other species? Apparently not. Further, none of the specified attributes is clearly concrete and observable, and each of them requires definition, too.