In Bluebeard's Castle 
The Essentialist Assumptions behind Cultural Constructivism
(October 6, 1996)

The deep and widespread resistance to a biological approach to human cognition and behavior presents a delicate puzzle of its own: surely it is more than obvious that human beings are biological organisms, and that everything culture and civiluzation has accomplished has been made possible by and mediated through our complex biological makeup. That an investigation into the nature and structure of this makeup constitutes a vital part of the humanities and social sciences cannot be considered a particularly daring proposal--and yet, why is it that a slight but profound tremor still registers that this is the room in Bluebeard's castle we have agreed, as a culture, to keep the door closed and locked on, a place where fools rush in, but angels fear to tread?

This agreement is hinted at early on; in 1873, two years after the publication of Darwin's The Descent of Man, John Stuart Mill points out that oppression's favorite justification is that the current social order is merely the natural one. "But was there every any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?", he asks rhetorically, citing Aristotle's claim that the Thracians and Asiatics were of a slave nature, Southern slave owners' fanatical affirmation of the equivalent doctrine, as well as his proper subject matter, "one of the chief hindrances to human improvement", the subjection of women to men. What is argued to be natural, Mill concludes, is invariably no more than what is customary; and change is held at bay by claiming that what is really only unusual is unnatural [1].

The positive implication of this is that custom is man-made and subject to our control, and locating social relations and differences in the sphere of the man-made empowers us to begin to change it. In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche makes this desideratum explicit: we should preferentially explain social phenomena in terms of cultural factors, since this will allow and encourage us to effect changes [2]. The sentiment was elaborated into a full-blown position at the beginning of the century by the founder of American anthropology, Franz Boas, and his even more influential students, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. The thorough-going and dogmatic formulation of cultural constructivism, epitomized in Boas' student Lowie's motto, omni cultura ex cultura,  [3] became the credo of the humanities and social sciences for the rest of the century.

The intentions behind this progam are easy to sympathize with. Boas' position was a response to the early anthropological work of Lewis Henry Morgan, who used the ethnographic material from his study of the Iroquois to argue for a biological and racial origin of cultural differences--an interpretation which seemed tailor-made to foster racial prejudice. History has only too many examples of the dramatic and on the whole overwhelmingly negative consequences on society of classifying people into biological kinds, and Boas responded to these historical and contemporary facts. In Medieval Europe, social status was thought to be a similar kind of difference as the differences between animal species; according to the same logic, identity was a function of office, and office was inherited from parent to child. (When Hildegard von Bingen, the illustrious twelfth-century Abbess of Thubingen, was asked why she would only accept noble ladies, she replied, "Who, unless he courts ruin, puts all his farm-stock into one shed: oxen, asses, sheep, and kids all together?" [4]) We find very similar kinds of thinking in large parts of contemporary Indian society: the caste system prescribes the inheritance of profession and social status, and social mobility within this traditional system is severely restricted. There is no way to advance, say, from a sudra to a brahmin. It is as if each person had a hidden essence that is utterly immutable, no more able to transform into another than a cat can be turned into a zebra. As to the West, we need not and do not go back to the Middle Ages for the most immediate source of our cultural trauma: the systematic genocide of Jews and Gypsies, as well as the murder of tens of thousands of individuals with mental and physical handicaps. The Nazi love-affair with organic and essentialist notions of nation and race in the heartland of European culture is one of the most recent incarnation of the heavy breathing we hear from behind Bluebeard's bolted door. Slavery and segregationism is the other shadow, mingling with essentialist definitions of the eternally feminine. The danger, in brief, is very real.

The cultural constructivist dogma holds, in contrast, that everything in culture is but custom. But something jars--if everything is constructed, why do we need the bolted door? There is a curious logic behind this position. For on the one hand, history lends support to the contention of Mill, Nietzsche, and Boas that it is a dangerous thing to do to locate cultural and social differences in the domain of biology. But on the other hand--why is it such a dangerous thing? Why cannot nature and biology be thought about in ways that are non-racist and non-essentialist? Why this lack of faith in our ability to think afresh? The urge to keep the door locked amounts to a cognitive claim: if we do place society in the realm of biology, then racism and essentialism follow as night follows day. This underlying assumption is precisely the opposite of cultural constructivism: behind the facade of constructivism lies an unspoken conviction of biological determinism. The ground of cultural constructivism is essentialism.

The biological understanding of essentialism, however, is constructivist. It teaches that the logic of biological kinds evolved to classify animals, and is well designed and functions well when applied to its proper domain. Animals, as Genesis has it, come each according to their kind, and it is generally accurate to say that we cannot change one into another. Gelman and Wellman have shown that small children tend to think of animals as having hidden essences; these remain constant even if the appearance of the animal changes, and are stable predictors of behavior, feeding preferences, mate choice, and offspring. Keil, in a series of ingenious experiments, showed that children permit objects to change identity--a tray literally becomes a hat if a string and some straw is added. Animals, however, do not depend on their appearance for their identity: however much you make the racoon look like a skunk, the children insist it remains a racoon. The construction of the living-kinds module, with its conceptual primitives of hidden "essences" and rigidly defined "kinds", is understandable as the result of a historical process, without any appeal to essences.

So are they right? Is it in fact the case that human beings--we--are unable to think of biological systems in other than essentialist ways? Clearly not: a consequence of this account of the resistance to a biological approach to human cognition and behavior is that human cognition is more flexible than cultural constructivism allows. The emerging cognitive paradigm demonstrates in practice that people are perfectly capable of thinking of biology in non-essentialist ways. Darwinism is a very coherent way of thinking about biology, and it is strictly causal and historical, with no appeal to hidden essences. It is true that it does not come naturally to think in an evolutionary manner; it requires training, application, and practice. But so does reading and writing, driving a car and using a computer--humans are universally able to learn new skills that do not come naturally. What is important is not taboos but education. The discovery of a biologically and genetically panhuman mode of construing living kinds in terms of essences do not condemn us, but on the contrary demonstrates our cognitive flexibility.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that a continual insistence on the motto omni cultura ex cultura, because of its blatantly ideological flavor and inherent unreasonableness, in an underhand manner ends up nourishing a fashionably oppositional racism that claims to see the facts straight in the eye. Cultural constructivism's fear of biology carries an implicit belief in the irresistible force of essentialist thinking, and thus a tacit endorsement of genetic determinism. A biological approach to human cognition, on the other hand, can engage immediately with the inappropriateness of essentialist thinking, in genetics as well as in the social order.

The challenge facing us today is not to avert our eyes from the monstrous face of essentialism, and to propound a doctrine of radical cultural constructivism that we know to be false, but to develop ways of thinking about biology that transcends our evolved inclinations. At issue is why people feel it is dangerous to think genes when it comes to culture. The reason seems to be that genes are taken to be the scientific counterpart of the folk psychological notion of "essences", and essences belong to a biological mode of classification into "kinds", each with its own ineluctable set of "natural" needs and behaviors. If we think genes, we get determinism and essentialism--a mode of thinking that, as Mill so eloquently points out, can only serve to legitimate the status quo, and drive society in the direction of a caste structure. But the conservatism is not in biology, it is in our ways of thinking about biology. Cultural constructivism in its radical form stems from the double bind of believing biology determines us to think in certain ways about biology--an assumption we as multi-talented human beings are perfectly at liberty to question.

In questioning the false necessities of biology, we have already begun the enquiry into the structure of our cognitive heritage. By teaching people to think in ways that are unnatural or counterintuitive, but more coherent, more in accord with the facts - surely an appropriate mandate for a university - Bluebeard can be systematically deposed from his despotic office.

Francis Steen
October 1996

A Postmodern Fable
© 1996 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles


[1] Mill ?:? BACK

[2] Nietzsche ?:? BACK

[3] Lowie 1917/1966: 66. BACK

[4] Murray 1978: 325, quoted in Brown 1988: 204. BACK


Brown, Donald E. (1988). Hierarchy, History, and Human Nature. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Lowie, R.H. (1917/1966). Culture and Ethnology. New York: Basic Books.

Mill, John Stuart. On the Subjection of Women.

Murray, Alexander (1978). Reason and Society in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil.