Human Culture as the Second Nature

Ranjan Das
Assistant Professor
Patkai Christian College (Autonomous) Chümoukedima 

Culture, a fundamental pillar of human societies, weaves a complex collage comprised of shared beliefs, practices, values, symbols, norms, and behaviours. Beyond a mere collection of customs, culture serves as a reservoir of collective wisdom, embodying historical, social, and environmental contexts that have given rise to a group’s distinct identity. From the intricacies of language and the nuances of art to the rituals of religion and the hierarchies of society, culture functions as a powerful lens through which people interpret their experiences, forge connections, and pass down their heritage through successive generations. Its significance lies not only in providing a framework to fathom the complexities of human societies but also in celebrating the diverse expressions that enrich the global human narrative.

A comprehensive study of human culture necessitates a multidisciplinary approach, drawing insights from anthropologists, sociologists, historians, linguists, and scholars from many ranges of fields. Among these disciplines, cultural anthropology delves into the intricacies of human societies, employing methodologies such as participant observation and ethnography to unravel the threads woven by cultural practices and their underlying semantics. This discipline seeks to grasp how culture shapes the formation of identities, influences power dynamics, and nurtures a sense of belonging within diverse communities. Moreover, culture plays a pivotal role in shaping individual and collective behaviours, steering choices, and mediating interactions. It affects how people perceive concepts like beauty, morality, and truth, thereby illustrating its potential to unite or polarize societies. In a rapidly globalizing world, the study of culture takes on heightened significance, offering insight into the mechanisms of cross-cultural communication and collaboration. Sociology, in contrast, examines culture within the context of broader societal structures, institutions, and disparities. It delves into the intricate interplay between culture and influential factors such as economics, politics, and technology. An eminent figure in anthropology, Clifford Geertz, has left a lasting impact in this domain. His exploration of culture as a dynamic interplay between symbols and meanings has transcended conventional disciplinary boundaries. Geertz’s groundbreaking works have illuminated the complex relationship between culture and human existence, propelling a more comprehensive understanding that extends beyond the confines of academia. Today, on his birth anniversary, the world remembers him with great reveries.

Born on August 23, 1926, in San Francisco, California, Geertz embarked on a profound journey of intellectual exploration that fundamentally transformed perspectives on culture, meaning, and interpretation. His academic trajectory led him to Harvard University, where he earned a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1956. This educational milestone served as the bedrock for a lifetime of pioneering research. Inspired by immersive fieldwork experiences in Indonesia and Morocco, Geertz’s scholarship transcended established methodologies, ushering anthropology into a new era of interpretive exploration. As a vanguard of the interpretive or symbolic anthropology movement, Geertz championed a thorough, context-driven analysis of cultural practices, treating them as layers of significance to be meticulously deciphered. Through this unique perspective, culture emerged as a multi-dimensional tapestry of symbols, interwoven into the fabric of everyday life, inviting scholars and enthusiasts alike to delve into the domain of human societies and their system of evolution. 

Clifford Geertz’s contributions have indelibly reshaped the realm of anthropology, particularly in its understanding of the intricate relationship between culture and human nature. His concept, “Human Culture as the Second Nature,” probes the complex interplay between human biology and the cultural constructs they give rise to. Geertz’s assertion challenges the traditional dichotomy between nature and culture, urging exploration of culture’s inherent role in shaping behaviours, perceptions, and interactions. This essay embarks on a comprehensive exploration of Geertz’s concept, dissecting its layers, significance, and far-reaching implications in the field of cultural history. 

At the core of Geertz’s concept lies the proposition that human culture functions as a “second nature,” entwining, complementing, and occasionally countering our innate biological instincts. This notion diverges from the conventional stance that culture acts as an external overlay on the canvas of human nature. Geertz contends that culture and biology are inextricably woven, forming an integral aspect of human existence. This fusion significantly influences behaviour, cognition, and the very foundations of social structures. The hybridisation between nature and culture, as embodied by Geertz’s metaphor of “second nature,” is a tricky interplay. It recognizes the pivotal role of biology in shaping human capacities and tendencies while simultaneously accentuating culture’s function in refining and channelling these attributes into distinct expressions. For instance, the biological inclination for language exists as an inherent trait, but the specific languages and dialects spoken are products of cultural choices. This intricate interplay extends across various domains, encompassing kinship systems, social norms, and even religious beliefs. A cornerstone of Geertz’s argument revolves around the concepts of cultural transmission and enculturation. Unlike other species, humans are not implicitly equipped with cultural knowledge; they acquire it through a process of socialization. This lifelong process involves internalizing societal norms, values, symbols, and practices. Geertz underscores that enculturation is an ongoing endeavour, as culture continually moulds and reshapes an individual’s perspective and behaviour. From this vantage point, culture emerges as a dynamic force that perpetually febricates human nature across the span of one’s life.

A salient facet of Geertz’s anthropological approach lies in his emphasis on symbols and their meanings. He asserts that culture extends beyond a mere collection of actions or customs; it is, in essence, a system of symbols imbued with shared significances. These identifiers serve as a framework through which individuals interpret and comprehend their surroundings. This perspective aligns seamlessly with the idea that culture operates as a view through which humans perceive reality, influencing emotional responses and steering decision-making processes. Geertz’s concept also delves into the realm of cultural variation and adaptation. Acknowledging the rich diversity of cultures and their unique responses to distinct environments, the notion of “second nature” recognizes that societies develop distinct cultural aspects, shaped by their historical experiences, ecological contexts, and interactions. Consequently, culture becomes a mechanism through which humans adapt to their surroundings, ensuring their survival and prosperity across diverse settings. This perspective fundamentally challenges the notion of a universal human nature while spotlighting the pivotal role of culture in shaping human diversity.

Transcending the boundaries of anthropology, Geertz’s concept reverberates across diversed disciplines. It enables us to reconsider the inherent conceptualisation of natural history of our race and culture. Furthermore, Geertz’s concept underscores the significance of studying culture as an evolutionary and adaptive phenomenon, casting light on the multifaceted ways in which societies develop and thrive. In its true essence, Geertz’s concept furnishes a paradigm shift through which we scrutinize the inheritance of culture through the evolutionary history of mankind and consequently, nurturing a more profound comprehension of human existence, diversity and assimilation.