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  We commonly make a distinction between nature and culture, on the premise that humans differ from animals. Culture is contrasted with nature by referring to the system of social rules which regulate the lives of individuals. This polarity is often seen as fundamental to the organization of human cultural systems.

In an evolutionary perspective, humans were regarded as progressing from a state of nature (seen as something wild and untamed) to that of culture through the institution of social ties based on contractual arrangements rather than kinship obligations. Kinship systems which promoted the exchange of women between communities were supported by the incest taboo.

Evolutionary ideas also attempted to provide a natural explanation for gender differences. Women were assumed to be ‘naturally’ closer to nature because of their child-bearing capacities, while culture was considered the province of men because they tended to organize and run society. The anthropology of gender has questioned this ethnocentric assumption, and demonstrated that even where these categories have social relevance, they are subject to variable interpretation. In those societies recognizing an opposition between the categories of nature and culture, their associated qualities are sometimes reversed. For instance, children may be associated with nature, and the role of both men and women is therefore to mediate between nature and culture. The concept of nature is by no means universal, and can itself be seen as a cultural construct, in the sense that it is a category created as a product of philosophical speculation. CL

Further reading C. MacCormack and , M. Strathern (eds.), Nature, Culture and Gender.



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