Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Human Enculturation

  • Andrea Karaiskaki
  • Xenia Anastassiou-HadjicharalambousEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1076-1



The progressive adaptation of human species within organized social norms that are characterized by values and social order.


The values that describe human societies managed to create a culture that renders humans as the only species to be separated qualitatively from other animals. It is argued that the tendency of early humans to be curious in their nature fostered the learning of useful strategies that selectively became genetic capabilities and which rendered the ongoing development of culture as a remarkable achievement. Human species evolved over generations, and communication became more complex. Arbitrary cultural meanings are found to be assigned to animate and inanimate objects in the environment, allowing for a vivid indication that early culture initiations were occurring. As communication is a vital component in the realm of enculturation, language appeared to develop in parallel with human cultural values. Throughout a continuous, systematic progress, there is evidence of memory expansion and brain size increase that facilitated and possibly co-interacted with the development of enculturation and the entry of humans in social norms.

Evolutionary Adaptability

Adaptability is of central importance to the evolutionary process. It is through adaptation that organisms are able to survive in changing environments, become better suited to their existing environment, or expand into new environments. Interpretively, organisms that are more adaptable can be expected to be more successful in evolutionary terms; a major improvement in adaptive ability is a major evolutionary advance. It is important to underline that genetic evolution has developed the superior adaptive mechanisms that have the potential to replace it in humans (Stewart 2001). The adaptive arrangements that operate within organisms during their life were discovered and established by genetic evolution. The first adaptive mechanisms established by genetic evolution searched for better adaptation by trying out changes within the organism using trial and error. As it has been mentioned above, the acquisition of language was a critically important step forward in human ability to construct mental models. Language and associated forms of communication enabled humans to share the knowledge used for building models (Popper 1972). Communication enabled all members of a society to acquire and use the knowledge discovered by any individual. It also enabled knowledge to be accumulated across generations. The progressive accumulation of knowledge allowed the individual to model greater range of interactions with the environment and to predict the consequences of their actions (Stewart 2001). Consequently, this notion encouraged human species to discover effective ways of achieving adaptive goals and obtaining positive reinforcement from internal reward systems. Nevertheless, human species have a very large evolutionary blind spot. Humans are not motivated to explore an immense variety of adaptive possibilities, regardless of how useful they may be in evolutionary terms. Until this limitation is eliminated, continuous use of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and other technological advances will be needed to satisfy past evolutionary needs and conditioning, rather than to achieve future evolutionary success.

Social Values

Societies seek to establish congruence between social values associated with their activities and the norms of acceptable behavior in a larger social system (Weigert 1983). Values foster harmony within a human society and function as the foundation of organizational legitimacy. The absence or violation of cultural common values leads to disparity that can threaten congruence and undermine unity within a society (Cooley 1953).

Emergence of Identity within Culture

In developing their sense of identity, people identify successively with values of influence over their well-being. The primary processes involved in identity development are ones of enculturation of cultural elements (Berry 1980). Enculturation references the agentic individual’s process of identification with whatever cultural elements of influential others are accessible to the person (Weinreich 1983). In the main, the young child identifies with mother and father in the first instance but identifying only with limited aspects of them apprehended from the child’s perspective. Subsequently, the person as older child, adolescent, and then young adult successively identifies with members within their direct environment, and beyond with agents of the wider community, and part-identifies with their salient features according to increasing levels of comprehension (Erikson 1950, 1968). As a consequence, over a formative period, the child who becomes the adult migrant will have enculturated major aspects of heritage culture including some elements that are incompatible with others, since cultures are not entirely monolithic (Liebkind 1989). According to ISA, identity is a modification of earlier ones and emphasizes people’s construal of their biographical past and their aspirations for the future. For human species, their biographical past scenarios can be located in their heritage locations and cultures, while their future aspirations may entail considerations about their intended modes of engaging with their receiving communities (Weinreich 2003).


Contrary to the belief that wants morality to encompass a trait unique to humans, it is argued that other animal species may possess moral behaviors including community concern, reciprocity, and empathy. Although it is not supported that a fully developed moral system is present in other animals, it is indicated that human morality is embedded in phylogenetic relationships with ancestral animal species. Evolutionary scientists depict the phenomenon of homology by rendering the presence of shared behaviors as the result of a common ancestor between humans and other animal species. They also support that two distantly related species can share a behavior while they inhabit similar environmental niches as it results from convergence due to shared environmental constraints. Intriguingly, examining behavioral patterns of other species might explain mechanisms of human behavior and depict that a multitude of phenomena concerning morality are the result of continual evolution (Dennett 1995).

Darwinism and Moral Emotions

Charles Darwin proposed that the basis of morality is innate and that humans and animals share an evolutionary background. He mentions in his book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex that nonhuman primates possess social instincts, such as parental affection, and they are consequently characterized by a sense of conscience that would be otherwise intellectual power if it was well developed as it is in humans. It is argued that other animals experience some level of sympathy for others in their environment that also includes a strong need for familial interactions (Darwin 1964).

Darwin does not disregard the importance of advanced intellectual ability for meaningful judgment, but he underlines that well-marked social instincts are present in animals indicating moral constraints and conscience in species other than humans (Darwin 1981). He supports that this notion functions as an evidence for evolutionary continuity between humans and other animals as he relied on comparative data regarding facial expressions across human cultures and other species. He addressed the reasons why universal behaviors are expressed in the form that they do (Darwin 1998).

Adam Smith appears to support Darwinian theory. In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments discusses that both positive and negative passions are seen in animals and that they share many traits that are considered human. To support his views, Smith mentions that all animals, including children and dogs, are likely to become angry at inanimate objects that hurt. He highlights that human instincts were in place to promote survival and reproduction. He further believed that instincts were initially experienced as emotion, rather than rational thought, and were often laid outside conscious awareness (Smith 1817). The idea of evolutionary continuity of behavior and the recognition of moral emotions has its roots embedded in the ancient past.

The Empirical and Normative Senses of Morality

Morality from a scientific perspective refers to a set of empirical phenomena, such as the observed capacity of human beings to make normative judgments and the tendency to have certain sentiments including sympathy, guilt, or blame as well as intuitions about fairness and violence. Scientists speak of the evolution of morality in empirical sense while utilizing tools as comparative genomics and primate studies to analyze the subject of interest. While morality in the normative sense is not an empirical phenomenon to be explained, there are vital points that require attention regarding evolutionary theory and principles (Rosenberg 2006).

The normative sense of morality questions one’s evolutionary background for moral guidance; through the normative approach, scientists might attempt to gain insight into the content of morality as claimed by proponents of prescriptive evolutionary ethics. Evolutionary theory can potentially explain metaethics and allow to resolve inquiries about the existence and nature of morality (Biniolo and de Anna 2006). Once topics of interest are selected, scientists begin to consider scientific explanatory projects concerning morality in the empirical sense.

Moral Behaviors in Nonhuman Species

Moral emotions have been identified as the principle mechanisms that uphold the rules of behavior underlying social norms and conventions (Mead 1934). They constitute vital components in interactions as they normalize the behaviors of group members and foster the tendency to be in line with the norms (Haidt 2003). Equity and equality are the two primary elements that synthesize justice. Adam Smith refers to justice as “the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice of human society.” This perspective lies within the rationale that wants animal species to react in the face of unfair treatment. This notion argues that based on instincts of moral behavior, primates tend to respond negatively when others are treated less well, a fact that contributes to the maintenance of harmonious coexistence among group members (Brosnan 2006).

Studies on Moral Behavior in Primates

Naturalistic studies have shown that long-term behavior of the partner is more important than the outcome of the individual. In an experimental cooperation task, subjects were more likely to cooperate if they and their partner evenly shared the rewards. In one study, monkeys had to work together to pull a heavy tray of food. The foods differed every time, and the monkeys had to decide whether they were willing to work for the food reward they were offered. Pairs in which the partners shared the good food about half of the time were successful in the cooperative task, while pairs in which one partner eliminated the other rarely obtained cooperation. Aside from the fact that non-sharing dominants received higher value rewards than their partners, their success rate was lower; thus, they tended to receive fewer rewards. The subjects seemed to expect that working together on a task leads to equity if reward outcome and dominant partners who failed to do this received a form of punishment (Brosnan et al. 2006). The findings indicate that a critical factor in a cooperative task is the partner’s behavior to be equitable, rather than the actual value of reward. In experiments where participants are humans, responses to inequity differ depending on the source (Silk et al. 2005). Humans change their responses if there is a reason for inequity (Tajfel 1981). Individuals offer less, and partners accept inequity more readily if the subject is perceived to have earned the right to it. Interestingly, humans tend to respond more negatively to inequity that is caused by another human directly than to inequity that is the result of chance.

Evolution of Justice

The sense of justice is seen in nonhuman primates as they are likely to respond negatively to earning less preferred rewards than a social partner. In respect to natural selection, researchers argue that it might have been a critical environmental factor that led to selection for the behavior (Darwin 1964). It is important to underline that evolution of shared behaviors does not indicate identical approaches from species as well as it does not eliminate the novelty of behaviors that are unique to specific primates, but not others, due to their complex nature. Nonetheless, inequity can be explained as the byproduct of another behavior that led individuals to selectively focus on conspecifics, such as social learning, which is present in many species and can be beneficial (Kelly 1955). On the other end of the spectrum, inequity superficially might not be perceived as rewarding from species due to unjust circumstances; however, reacting negatively to unfair treatment can cease harmful interactions with opponents and encourage them to seek out equitable partners (Brosnan 2006). There is also evidence that human and nonhuman species actively take steps toward rectifying inequity when the moral sense of justice is violated, and they receive less than they deserve (Brosnan 2008). In this stage, primates react by punishing others who do not play fairly (Fehr and Gachter 2002). It can be argued that reaction to disadvantageous inequity is more salient as there is immediate benefit to the partner. On the other hand, advantageous inequity leads individuals to abandon their own good and act against their short-term self-interest in order to give up rewards to benefit others. The definition in itself might seemingly appear disastrous for the individual; however, it derives long-term benefits for the community and the conservation of healthy social norms.

Embodiment of the Self in the Community

Rites of Passage

A rite of passage is a ceremony and marks the transition from one phase of life to another. It plays a critical role in the evolution of human civilization as it defines the common values of a society. A rite of passage manages to conserve social order and the sense of community among the members of a group who come together to celebrate an occasion and practice traditions and customs on the foundation of shared social values. Rites of passage are characterized by the ordeals with which a youth is formally invested with adult status in a community. Intriguingly, these rituals and ceremonies allow adults to transition into new life roles along the path of adulthood, all the way into meaningful elderhood. When humans design rite of passage experiences, they work to assure that initiates come out of the experience with a new and empowering story that helps them take responsibility for the decisions that set the course of their future. Members of a social group initiates create the story of who they are and the kind of life they wish to build based within the exploration of their own personal values. Initiates are encouraged to select the story that connects them to their community. Through this self-exploration, they emerge with a stronger sense of personal responsibility to all aspects of their lives, stretching all the way out to the larger world of which they are a part of (Carrithers et al. 1985). Consequently, both the community and the initiate benefit from a rite of passage. An intentional rite of passage experience provides the space for the community to transmit its core values and ethics and confer the role responsibilities appropriate to the initiate’s stage of life, hence insuring cultural continuity and knitting together of the generations.

The Role of Honor Code

A fundamental aspect of culture is its embodiment of the societal processes of substantial groups of people who perceive themselves as belonging to a commonality of values and beliefs, moral imperatives and religious beliefs, dress and behavior, history, and modes of living, whereby one group is culturally distinctive from another (Henry 2008). From evolutionary perspective, honor codes appear to maintain cohesive order within communities. The role of an honor code is to encompass a set of ideals in a society and govern accordingly a group of individuals that abide by moral rules. It is based on what constitutes honorable behavior among group members, and its use depends on the notion that individuals within the group can be trusted to act honorably. In many cultures, an honor code exists parallelly to ethics that require proper compliance according to societal rules, by members who seek to be recognized for their individuality and be inviolably included in community. Punishments upon disregard of the honor code underline that values-driven individuals ought to be more successful within a society.

Development Levels for Compliance and Ethics

From evolutionary perspective, crucial components that characterize honor codes of human societies appear to be diachronic as they influence critically the man of today who seems to adhere to values that had always fostered healthy functions in communities since ancient times. Modern society has adopted these values and incorporated them into organizational honor codes. Foundation-level programs set the basis for establishing a healthy organizational culture and preventing, detecting, and resolving legal and regulatory compliance violations. The behavioral focus is on compliance, and the business focus is on the organization. Transformation-level programs support a shift from a compliance focus to a compliance and ethics focus. The behavioral focus is on compliance and ethics promoted by values-based leadership. The business focus is on the organization and primary stakeholders which might be customers, suppliers, investors, financers, and communities in operating area. Sustainability-level programs foster aspirational behavior and contribute to the organization’s continued success. The behavioral focus for this level is on compliance, ethics and honor, collaboration, and meaning, all promoted by values based on leadership (Keegan 1994). Hence, the business focus is on the organization, primary stakeholders, and secondary stakeholders which might be special interest groups, media, government, competitors, consumer advocates, and global society (Henry 2008).

Spiritual Development

Humans have assembled a remarkable body of knowledge about how they can develop new psychological capacities. Such knowledge is embodied in religious and spiritual systems. Even though systems differ in the expression of their goals, the world’s major religious systems advocate the cultivation of the human ability to free oneself from particular emotional responses, desires, and motivations. All systems contain methodologies that aim to assist the development of such capacity. Religious systems generally promote the emergence of the new self through practices that separate the mind into an observing part and an observed part (Nicol 1980). The observing part is the precursor to the new self. These practices typically operate by turning attention and awareness inward and directing it at mental contents such as sensations, emotions, motivations, mental images, and thoughts as they arise in the mind (Goleman 1988). For instance, many religious systems require adherents to struggle against the dictates of their lower desires and impulses facilitating significantly the process of human enculturation. Doing so renders these mental states objects of attention and begins the separation of the mind into an observing part and an observed part.

The Role of Spiritual Meditation in Enculturation

Intriguingly, the concept of culture is not only characterized by participation of the individual in community but also by the separation from the massive group in an attempt to grow intellectually, enrich their mental capacities, and acquire identity for the inner and outer self. Meditation involves turning attention inward and making thoughts as emotional states objects of attention. Mindfulness practices and self-observation promote the development of the new observing self during ordinary life. These practices focus attention on the physical sensations, emotions, mental images, and thought that arise as the individual goes about daily activities and interactions; these techniques emphasize that self-observation is to be passive and nonjudgmental (Nicol 1980). Evolutionary scientists argue that mental capacities of this kind characterize the primitive man and his spiritual practices back in the old antiquity. They have always allowed the individual to accumulate knowledge about the operation of their motivational and emotional system and improve their capacity to manage them. The result is a new emerging self that can remain functionally separate from motivations and emotional impulses and can decide whether or not to be influenced by them. This separation enables the new self to control the disposition of attention. The individual can direct their attention and energy at activities that serve the aims of the self. As a result, he/she can be motivated and emotionally satisfied in the activities that serve their goals. If an individual decides to pursue evolutionary success as their ultimate objective, they will be able to align their internal reward system with evolutionary goals (Stewart 2001).


Enculturation of elements represented by moral and social values is a process of incorporation of cultural elements to become elemental aspects of one’s overall identity. The continuous process of human enculturation is the foundation of the person’s identification as well as the coexistence of mixed cultural elements within the person’s identity. Ultimately, the goal is the creation of elemental identification that is characterized by common values and is expressed within social boundaries, honor codes, and moral incentives. A better understanding of the evolution of moral behaviors can be achieved through examining outcome behaviors that allow for insight in the past. According to the notion of natural selection, salient behaviors were practiced more than others, rendering certain moral tendencies as vital for survival. Values of justice and equity appear to be among some of the most crucial components to maintain social norms and community order intact in communities of human and nonhuman animals. Undoubtedly, intellectual ability and moral judgment of humans are not comparable with those of other species; nevertheless, the presence of social instincts functions as an evidence of moral conscience in other species. With respect to moral behaviors and emotions, through approaching the precursors, such as the inequity response, scientists may gain a better insight into the outcomes of evolution of moral behavior. Since clear continuity has been determined between the species, it can function as the foundation of future research on evolutionary approaches to human morality.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrea Karaiskaki
    • 1
  • Xenia Anastassiou-Hadjicharalambous
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.University of IowaIowa CityUSA
  2. 2.University of NicosiaNicosiaCyprus

Section editors and affiliations

  • Menelaos Apostolou
    • 1
  1. 1.University of NicosiaNicosiaCyprus