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The Handbook of Culture and Biology

Edited by

José M. Causadias
Eva H. Telzer
Nancy A. Gonzales

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Biographical Notes

Emma K. Adam is Professor of Human Development and Social Policy in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She examines stress and coping in adolescence and early adulthood, focusing on everyday social influences on stress hormones and sleep, and their implications for health and academic achievement. Her research has revealed, and explores the impacts of, racial/ethnic disparities in stress and stress biology.

R. Alexander Bentley is Chair of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Houston. His research interests are in modeling and understanding collective “herding” behavior in society and testing those models against real-world phenomena. A second, distinct area of research explores community diversity, kinship, and social complexity in prehistoric societies.

Jennifer Botting is a PhD student in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, researching social learning biases in wild vervet monkeys at the Inkawu Field Project, South Africa. Her research interests focus on social cognition in non-human primates.

Belinda Campos is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chicano/Latino Studies as well as an affiliate of the School of Medicine PRIME-LC Program and the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines the role of culture in shaping relationship experience and health. Her work shows that a cultural emphasis on prioritizing others before the self (as found in, for example, in Latino and East Asian cultures) can be beneficial for relationships and protective of health.

José M. Causadias is an Assistant Professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. His work is centered on promoting innovation in cultural research that can transform psychological and developmental sciences. With this aim in mind, he conducts research on culture and biology interplay, particularly in the field of cultural genomics.

Lucia Cavanagh is a doctoral student in the Counseling Psychology program at the University of Houston. She received a bachelor's degree in Psychology and English from the University of Florida. She is a member of the Hwemudua Addictions and Health Disparities Laboratory with research interests that center on biopsychosocial predictors of disease and drug use vulnerability, specifically focusing on psychoneuroimmunology, stress dysregulation, and neurocognition.

Adam B. Cohen is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University. His research focuses on the cultural and evolutionary psychology of religion. He is the editor of Culture Reexamined (American Psychological Association, 2014) and he was given the Margaret Gorman early career award by the American Psychological Association and the Godin prize by the International Association for the Psychology of Religion.

Saarang Deshpande is currently an undergraduate student at Cornell University and will be attending medical school after graduation. His research interests involve the intersection of neuroendocrinology, gene–environment interaction, and psychosocial intervention. He aims to focus on academic medical practice in neuropsychiatry.

Stacey N. Doan is a developmental health psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Claremont McKenna College. Her work focuses on understanding how social factors, such as socioeconomic practices, and cultural values and parenting practices influence health and well-being.

Leah D. Doane is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University. She studies adolescent and emerging adult development, particularly with regard to identifying the psychophysiological mechanisms that underlie adolescent and young adult everyday stress experiences in naturalistic settings. Her most recent work uses culturally and genetically informed designs for studying daily associations among socio-emotional experiences, physiology and sleep in the prediction of subsequent health and academic achievement in Latino children and adolescents.

Gary W. Evans is Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University. He is interested in how the physical environment affects human health and well-being among children. His specific areas of expertise include the environment of childhood poverty, children's environments, cumulative risk and child development, environmental stressors, and the development of children's environmental attitudes and behaviors.

Ewune Ewane is a doctoral student in the Counseling Psychology program at the University of Houston. She received her master's degree in Community Counseling at Loyola University Chicago and her bachelor's degree in Psychology at Marquette University. She is a member of the Hwemudua Addictions and Health Disparities Laboratory (HAHDL) and has research interests in addictions, health disparities, identity development, and African/African-American psychology.

Nancy A. Gonzales is ASU Foundation Professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University. She received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Washington. Her research examines cultural and contextual influences on child and family developmental processes across the lifespan. Her work has focused particularly on the study of meaningful aspects of culture at multiple levels to understand the interplay of culture with normative and maladaptive adaptation within diverse communities.

Ryan S. Hampton is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University. His research focuses on cultural variations in neural responses involved in processes related to affect, including empathy, emotion regulation, and positive self-views.

LaBarron K. Hill is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine. His research focuses on deciphering the interaction of the biobehavioral mechanisms implicated in cardiovascular disease disparities.

Lori S. Hoggard is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Social Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on elucidating the unique consequences of racial discrimination as a stressor and identifying potential protective or vulnerability factors in this context.

Ummul-Kiram Kathawalla is a PhD student and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her research interests focus on understanding how various interpersonal, societal, and personal factors influence minority identity development. She is particularly interested in how identity formation contributes to the development and persistence of psychological conditions and physiological well-being.

Kevin M. Korous is a PhD student and graduate research assistant in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. He received his bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of Utah. His research interests include the role of biological processes, culture, and environmental stressors in shaping development, with a focus on cognition and well-being.

Kevin N. Laland is a Professor in the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews. His principal academic interests are in the general area of animal behavior and evolution, with a specific focus on animal social learning, cultural evolution, and niche construction. He is engaged in empirical studies of animal social learning and innovation, including experimental work with fish, birds, non-human primates, and humans.

Lynda C. Lin is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She is interested in using an interdisciplinary approach to understand the underlying neural mechanisms through which culture can influence behavior.

Ronda F. Lo is a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at York University. She is broadly interested in how culture influences a number of cognitive processes and social behaviors, such as attention, language use, sibling relationships, and the intersection of national, ethnic, religious, and linguistic identities.

Meghan L. Meyer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College. Her research integrates social and cognitive neuroscience to promote the understanding of what drives our tendency, ability, and need to think about the social world around us.

Stefanie B. Northover received a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology at California State University, Long Beach, and a Master of Science degree in psychology at McMaster University. She is currently a graduate student in social psychology at Arizona State University. She is interested in the psychology of religion from evolutionary and cultural perspectives.

Ezemenari M. Obasi is an Associate Professor at the University of Houston in the Department of Psychological, Health, and Learning Sciences (PHLS). His current program of research focuses on addictions, health disparities that disproportionately affect the African-American community, psychoneuroimmunology, and cultural predictors of health behaviors. He is the director of the Hwemudua Addictions and Health Disparities Laboratory (HAHDL) and the director of the University of Houston's HEALTH Research Institute. He also has unique expertise in the study of African/African-American culture and mental health. This includes human laboratory studies, field data collections in the community, and large-scale longitudinal research designs.

Michael J. O'Brien is Professor of Anthropology and Dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri. His research interests are in developing theory to increase our understanding of numerous anthropological and archaeological issues, including the colonization of the New World and the subsequent spread of populations eastward across North America.

Anthony D. Ong is Associate Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. His research aims to advance understanding of human development and plasticity across multiple levels of analysis, including emotion–cognition interactions, sociocultural processes, and neurobiological systems. A major focus of his recent work involves understanding the physiological mechanisms through which subtle forms of recurring bias and unfair treatment get under the skin to affect disease susceptibility.

Yang Qu is a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University. He received his PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He uses an interdisciplinary approach to examine how culture shapes emotion, motivation, and decision making among adolescents and adults.

Luke Rendell is a MASTS Lecturer in the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews, appointed in 2012 after receiving a PhD from Dalhousie University in 2003. His broad research interests are focused on the evolution of learning and communication, with a particular emphasis on cetaceans, and has published over 60 papers on these topics. He is co-author of The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (Chicago University Press, 2015).

Joni Y. Sasaki is an Assistant Professor and director of the Culture and Religion Lab in the Department of Psychology at York University. In her research, she integrates perspectives from psychology and biology to examine basic scientific questions about culture and religion.

Michael R. Sladek is a doctoral student in Developmental Psychology at Arizona State University. He is interested in stress and coping processes among adolescents and young adults. From a biopsychosocial perspective, his research has focused on stress and coping among students transitioning to the college context using multiple assessment methods (e.g., daily diaries, stress biomarkers, sleep). With greater attention to culture, his current work extends this approach to Latino and other historically under- represented college students.

Charles T. Snowdon is Hilldale Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His research has involved cooperatively breeding marmosets and tamarins, with work in captivity and in the field. He has studied the behavioral and neuroendocrine mechanisms involved in successful cooperative breeding as well as vocal and chemical signaling and social learning. He has served as an editor of Animal Behaviour and of the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Moin Syed is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His research interests lie broadly in how adolescents and young adults from diverse ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds weave together their multiple identities to lead healthy, productive, and purposeful lives.

Eva H. Telzer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her PhD in Developmental Psychology from UCLA. Her research centers on adolescent development, social relationships, and the role the brain plays during this important transitional period. Her research takes a multi-method approach that includes the use of fMRI, daily diaries, and diurnal cortisol.

Erica van de Waal is a Society in Science–Branco Weiss Fellow at the Anthropological Institute and Museum of the University of Zurich and the research coordinator of the Inkawu Vervet Project in South Africa. She finished her PhD in 2010 and did four years of postdoctoral research at the University of St Andrews before taking up her current position. Her main research topic is animal cognition with a focus on primate social learning. She has co-authored a key paper on this last topic, “Potent social learning and conformity shape a wild primate's foraging decisions,” published in Science (2013).

Michael E. W. Varnum is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University. His research focuses on the proximal biological mechanisms that underpin cultural variations in social cognition (using neuroscience techniques), as well as the role played by more distal ecological factors in patterns of cultural variation and cultural change. His research has been published in leading journals, including PNAS, Psychological Science, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, and NeuroImage.

Shu-wen Wang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Haverford College. Her research examines stress, coping, and social behavior, with an emphasis on social support interactions. One branch of her work focuses on the cultural shaping of stress and coping processes, and has found that cultural values impact the use and experience of social support.

Kristin A. Wilborn is a postdoctoral research fellow at University of Houston. She received her doctoral degree in Experimental Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, a master's degree in Health Psychology at Texas State University, and a bachelor's degree in Political Science at Furman University. She currently serves as the project manager in the Hwemudua Addictions and Health Disparities Laboratory (HAHDL), and has research interests in psychoneuroimmunology, health disparities, and quantitative methods.

David R. Williams is the Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and Professor of African and African American Studies and of Sociology at Harvard University. He is internationally recognized as a leading social scientist whose research is focused on the complex ways in which race, racism, socioeconomic status, stress, health behaviors, and religious involvement can affect physical and mental health.

Sandra Yan is a doctoral student in the Counseling Psychology program at University of Houston, where she received her bachelor's degree in Biology and Psychology. She is a member of the Hwemudua Addictions and Health Disparities Laboratory (HAHDL) and has research interests in addictions, psychoneuroimmunology, health disparities, and cultural psychology.

Foreword: On Culture and Biology

I recently found myself at an interdisciplinary workshop on the topic of human nature. The only biologist present, I argued strongly that the term “human nature” was inherently problematical and should be abandoned (Laland & Brown, in press). Curiously, I was followed by two anthropologists willing to defend the concept. That our presentations should have gone against the historical tendency for our respective disciplines says something about how far research has come in the cross-disciplinary investigation of the biology–culture relationship. It also hints at some of the challenges ahead. For researchers seeking to understand the interplay between biology and culture, these are exciting yet tortuous times.

We now live in an age in which attempts to separate “nature” from “nurture” or “biology” from “culture” are long discredited. Countless experimental studies show how genes take cues from environments, how learning relies on gene expression, and how all development is a dynamic interplay between internal and external factors. Science had taught us that many of the genes expressed in our body are themselves environmentally acquired. The human microbiome – a community of bacteria, archaea, fungi and protozoa that cohabit our body cavities, surfaces and tissues – are symbionts we inherit from our mothers (but not through transmission of genes), or else pick up from the external environment. We have around 20,000 genes of our own, but our bodies house more than 3 million genes belonging to other species, which play important roles in nutrient acquisition, metabolism, immune function and behavior. Human development is a multi-species project.

Indeed, characterizing what is human appears to be becoming increasingly difficult. A decade ago we might have found it straightforward to distinguish our species from other living animals. Today we recognize that this exercise would have been far more challenging 100,000 years ago, before the demise of other hominins. The fission–fusion nature of biological reality – for instance, the recently detected interbreeding of humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans (Green et al., 2010; Krause et al., 2010) – and the associated realization that even today's human populations have variant evolutionary histories, both in space and time, render any attempt to describe the “biological essence” or “defining characteristics” of humanity vulnerable to arbitrary judgments. A few years ago researchers discovered that the African elephant is actually two separate non-interbreeding species, now known as the forest and savannah elephants (Roca, Georgiadis, Pecon-Slattery, & O'Brien, 2001). The properties that allow species to be distinguished (forest elephants have slightly thinner tusks and rounder ears than savannah elephants) are typically quite different from those seem to capture their “biological essence” (their large size, their trunk, their long lives).

Equally, conceptions of “human nature” or “human biology” as umbrella terms for a package of universal, evolved human characteristics have long but increasingly troubled histories within the human evolutionary behavioral sciences. These days, were researchers to document a constellation of reliably developing human capacities that are more or less ubiquitous, and whose development seems to be well buffered against broad environmental fluctuations, we would have difficulty in attributing such traits to “nature” as opposed to “nurture,” “culture,” or “environment.” Experimental findings are leading to a broadened conception of inheritance and the recognition that parent–offspring similarity results not solely from the transmission of genes from one generation to the next but also from the transfer of a wide variety of other resources, and through a variety of different pathways (epigenetic variants such as DNA methylation and small RNAs, antibodies, hormones, symbionts, ecological resources, and the social transmission of knowledge and skills). These data undermine the hitherto strict separation of development and heredity that followed August Weismann's famous delineation of germ line and soma.

Phenotypes are not well described as the output of genetic programs; rather, they self-assemble through a reciprocally caused process that comprises both “upward” and “downward” causation, and in which genes are far from being the only informational resource. We don't first develop a brain and then subsequently use it to perceive, learn and reason; rather, our perception, learning and reasoning fashion a thinking brain. Organisms are not passively molded by selection to suit a pre-existing environment: they part-construct the environments to which they adapt (Odling-Smee, Laland, & Feldman, 2003). Different developmental upbringings forge different brains, and alternative environmental conditions precipitate variant gene expression. Cultural experiences leave neurobiological traces, which in turn are expressed in complex behavior that shapes the cultural experiences of others. The products of such within- and between-individual interactions are society-specific traditions, which anthropological, genetic and mathematical analyses now reveal have modified the natural selection acting on humans (and other species) in richly interwoven gene–culture coevolutionary histories (Laland, Odling-Smee, & Myles, 2010). Whatever level of analysis we choose, organisms are dynamical systems, constantly responding to, and changing, their immediate surrounds.

In line with this rejection of nature/nurture and biology/culture dichotomies, behavioral scientists have established that the social transmission of knowledge and skills, traditional behavior, and society-specific conventions, are no longer the exclusive province of humanity. To the contrary, a wide variety of animals, from fruit flies and wood crickets to gorillas and sperm whales, acquire knowledge and skills through copying the behavior of others. Paradoxically, biologists have begun to take “culture” seriously at virtually the same time that many social scientists have abandoned the notion. Fortunately, these ostensibly opposing trends have more in common than is apparent at first sight. Anthropologists' disquiet with a monolithic conception of culture has much in common with my own troubles with “human nature.” That is because setting “culture” in opposition to “nature” (which is how culture is conceived by many anthropologists) inherently suffers from broadly equivalent deficiencies as the reverse. It is no easier to describe the culture of a population than to describe its biological nature.

Biology and culture have refused to be pinned down fundamentally because they are in constant flux. There are no species, genes, cultures, or natures: these are illusions of “things,” the traces of constancy in a network of dynamical interrelated processes. Yet that fluidity does not render the processes any less real or amenable to scientific investigation. Far from drowning in this sea of change and complexity, biology as an academic field has never been more vibrant, and investigations of the field's interplay with culture are imbued with no less vigor than other biological domains. Technological advances in genomics, epigenetics, neuroscience, and the computational analysis of big data, lend new resolution to our research. Oftentimes pragmatic stances and simplifying assumptions are necessary for progress to be made. A powerful combination of new tools and innovative thinking is opening up exciting new avenues to study.

More than anything, integrative methodologies are required that bridge and synthesize the domains historically separated as social and biological science. If reciprocal causation and feedback are organizing themes of development then effective psychological science demands initiatives that explore the bidirectional interplay between culture and biology, amalgamating theory and methods from fields such as cultural psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and genetics in innovative ways. If gene expression varies with internal and external environment, then psychological research needs to explore how cultural practices and beliefs differentially condition brain epigenetics, and the ramifications of this conditioning for brain functioning and individual experience, feeding back to culture. We perhaps need fewer dedicated geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and anthropologists, and more neuroanthropologists, cultural neuroscientists, and gene–culture coevolutionists. We require researchers who set out to unravel the feedbacks between genes, brain, behavior, and culture without prejudicing the direction of causality. The real action – and some of the most exciting science – are at the interface.

Dichotomous thinking still pervades the biological and social sciences, but it is being eroded by sound experimentation and rich interdisciplinary theory. I heartily commend the articles in this collection as examples of the innovative science at the nexus of (those processes somewhat inadequately labeled) “culture” and (those processes equally unsatisfactorily called) “biology.”

Kevin N. Laland

St Andrews, UK

September, 2016


  1. Green, R. E., Krause, J., Briggs, A. W., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., … & Pääbo, S. (2010). A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome. Science, 328(5979), 710–722. doi:10.1126/science.1188021
  2. Krause, J., Fu, Q., Good, J. M., Viola, B., Shunkov, M. V., Derevianko, A. P., & Pääbo, S. (2010). The complete mitochondrial DNA genome of an unknown hominin from southern Siberia. Nature, 464(7290), 894–897. doi:10.1038/nature08976
  3. Laland, K. N., & Brown, G. R. (in press). The social construction of human nature. In T. Lewens & B. Hannon (Eds.), Why we disagree about human nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Laland, K. N., Odling-Smee, F. J., & Myles, S. (2010). How culture has shaped the human genome: Bringing genetics and the human sciences together. Nature Reviews Genetics, 11, 137–148. doi:10.1038/nrg2734
  5. Odling-Smee, F. J., Laland, K. N., & Feldman, M. W. (2003). Niche construction: The neglected process in evolution. Monographs in Population Biology, 37. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  6. Roca, A. L., Georgiadis, N., Pecon-Slattery, J., & O'Brien, S. J. (2001). Genetic evidence for two species of elephant in Africa. Science, 293(5534), 1473–1477. doi:10.1126/science.1059936