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Exploring the Relationship between Culture, Biology, and Mental IllnessKathy T. Nguyen
Grand Rapids Community College
The reason for this writing is to inform readers about the relation of biology, culture, and mental illness has with one another. It is important to know how these three things intersect each other, but the human mind and body cannot be defined by one thing, but by many things factored in. This solves the misunderstanding that people have when diagnosing mental illness and determining whether those human behaviors is conditioned by culture or biology.
Keywords: Behaviors, biocultural, biology, culture, evolution, mental illness
Exploring the Relationship between Culture, Biology, and Mental IllnessFrom the tip of the iceberg, anthropology can be defined as the study of humankind but below the surface, anthropology can be specified into four subfields of studies. The first being archaeology, the study of humankind’s past ways of life through the interpretation of material culture, organic remains, written records, and/or oral traditions. (2) Biological anthropology, the study that deals with the evolution of the human body and mind. (3) Cultural anthropology, the study that explores the diversity of existing human ways of life, how they work, how they change, and how they interrelate in the modern world. And lastly, Linguistic anthropology which examines the structure and diversity of language and related human communication systems. You will find that when exploring anthropology, the subfields will intersect. A prime example of that is cultural and biological anthropology intersected, they create biocultural anthropology.

The Relationship between Culture and Biology Defined
The study that shows us the relationship between culture and biology is known as biocultural anthropology. Instead of looking for the underlying biological roots of human behaviour, biocultural anthropology attempts to understand how culture affects our biological capacities and limitations. (Kelso, 2001). Biocultural anthropology uses the Dual inheritance theory, (DIT), to explain how human behaviour is a product of two different and interacting evolutionary process: genetic evolution and cultural evolution. This is the relationship between culture and biology have – the gene-culture coevolution.

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Genetically, I think our personality can be biologically conditioned, but only to a certain degree. Culturally conditioned behaviors, on the other hand, are learned behaviours that I believe we get from our own experience and ancestors. These behaviours are the one we learn to adapt to our surroundings to survive and throughout life, we passed down our learnings so that the next generation survive better.
Before this course, my understanding of human behaviours has always been that it is unique for each person, but that the behaviours are just variations of one of another. We all have sets of behaviours we know not to do and to do to be seen as socially acceptable. I think it is difficult to determine if a behaviour was culturally or biologically conditioned now. Consider a frog whose pond has been polluted. This polluted pond can affect the frog’s ability to survive, but the frog learns to adapt to the tainted pond. Learning to survive, the frog now has a family of its own that can easily live in this polluted pond as if nothing was wrong. First of all, in biology class, one might learn that the frog has been mutated from the polluted pond and that when it had its family it passed the mutated gene that allowed the frog family to survive. Would this be considered a biological conditioned behaviour for the frog’s family? After all, it was a mutated gene it inherited. Or is it a culturally conditioned behaviour because the frog just adapted to survive? It is both, because of the environment exposed to the frog, the frog had to adapt to survive. This example shows how culture affects biology and also, just how hard it is to determine if a behaviour is conditioned by biology or culture.
Our behaviour cannot be genetics. As the director of the justice institute, John H. Laub stated in the New York Times, “…genes are ruled by the environment…” (Cohen, 2011). He says that the environment we are exposed to either mute or aggravate our impulses. Therefore, you must take in consideration the environment, status of the person, and what is considered socially normal behaviour in their community before trying to decide whether a behaviour is culturally conditioned or biologically conditioned. An example provided in the New York Times can be summed to: consider a kid whom parents are both aggressive. Will he or she grow up aggressive, because this trait could have been inherited by their parents? No, not necessarily. The kid will have a higher probability of being aggressive but that does not mean he or she will be. It goes back to the environment the child is exposed too. Was he or she exposed to an environment with risk factors that triggered their aggressive trait? Or is being aggressive normalize in her or his culture? In conclusion, there are several factors to take into consideration before one can truly determine if a behaviour is biologically conditioned because a culture has a profound influence on our biology.
It is important that we take those factors into consideration because as one of the most problematic things about anthropology is that it tends to categorize certain behaviours and thus, restricting a person’s identity. Our genes are not directly related to our human behaviour, so to flag a person that shows the possibility of that trait is wrong and impossible. There are so much to consider, but also where does it end? The “crime” gene has been debunked, but what other genes can scientist try to find to explain our behaviour? Without taking cultural factors into account, scientists’ research will be close-minded and inaccurate. A notable example of this is when discussing mental illness. Scientists believe that mental illness is biological and all the same around the world, therefore they think the symptoms and treatment found by them are the only solutions.

Globalization of the American1
In Ethan Watters’ diversity lecture, Watters shows how American belief of mental illness has shaped the rest of the world. By exhibiting four case studies to argue his point, he answers questions such as: Can one culture influence another? Do mental illness change over time in their prevalence? What drives those changes? Enlightening the listeners, the relationship of culture, biology, and mental illness.

He shows us that the Western culture believes their knowledge on the subject will answer all mental illness around the globe. By defined mental health by categorising disorders. So, they thought they could aid other countries in understanding mental illness. Watters pointed, “what we are missing from our understanding of mental illness is the cultural shaping and moulding of symptoms and disorders.” (Watters, 2017). By the end of the lecture, it became clear that culture does have a major influence on mental illness, but so does America. America changed the way the world talked about mental illness and how they treated it by imposing their own beliefs on the situation.

Culture does influence mental illness. The first example Watters showed was the mental illness, hysteria. Hysteria was a culturally shaped illness from the mid-19th century beginning with women displaying the symptoms. This was a common illness in Europe that soon spread over America. Another example he brought up involved the iconic Princess Diana. It was rumoured that Princess Diana suffered from bulimia and in that year, the rate of women all across the world also claimed to be suffering from bulimia. When the rumour was shut down, the trend fell too and of course, spiked back up when it was confirmed. In the case of Princess Diana, disorders like anorexia and bulimia, anxiety, and depression can be seen to ebb and flow across generations. This does not mean it is an illness that is passed by genetics. Ethan Watters describes the influence of culture within a signal term: symptom pool. He says various places and time have “symptom pools” that are not random. “Allows a person to take troubling emotions or internal conflicts that are often frustratingly or indistinct beyond expression and distilling them into a symptom or behaviour that in that moment of time (human history) is a culturally recognized signal of suffering. (Watters, 2017).

Similar to symptom pools, explanatory models create culturally expected experiences of disease in the mind of the sufferer. Diverse cultures have different beliefs on how the body and mind work, so their own experiences shape what the mental illness is to them and how it should be treated/approached. Since culture is dynamic, so are our thoughts on mental illness. Ethan Walters can be quoted, “The clinical presentation of depression and anxiety is a function not only of the patient’s ethnocultural backgrounds but of the structure of the healthcare system they find themselves in, and the diagnostic categories and conception they encounter in mass medley in the dialogue with family, friends, and clinicians.” (Watters, 2016).

With such a complicated relationship, Watters helps the listeners understand the relation that culture, biology, and mental illness have with one another. To see cultural differences, you have to look across history (time and place) and across cultures. America has such an independent view of thinking that we underestimate the impact of culture. We take things out of contexts; therefore, we make fundamentals mistakes. Slowly, but surely the western concept is realizing that you cannot take culture out of contexts, because the human mind does copy the cultures it resides.

In the end, Ethan Watters showed case studies that proved the globalization of America. He also showed the problematic side of America imposing its own idea and belief onto other countries. Watters make the viewers aware of the impact culture had on mental illness and still is.

Cohen, P. (2011, June 19). Genetic Basis for Crime: A New Look Electronic version. The New York Times. Retrieved September 10, 2018, from, A. J. (2001, October 4). Principles of Biocultural Anthropology. Retrieved September 10, 2018, from, E. (Narrator). (2016). GRCC Diversity Lecture Ethan Watters Online video. GRCCtv. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from

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