Sussman to outline critical role of culture in understanding society

Are people’s traits and behaviors innately inferior or superior to one another, or are they merely different because of their different histories?

“The anthropological concept of culture is extremely important and often misunderstood because many of the things that are assumed to be biologically determined, like criminality or homosexuality or IQ, are really behaviorally and societally defined.”

This quote from Robert W. Sussman, PhD, professor of physical anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, forms the basis for his Phi Beta Kappa/Sigma Xi Lecture.

“The Importance of the Concept of Culture to Science and Society,” part of the university’s Assembly Series, will be held at 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 9, in Steinberg Hall Auditorium (Note change in venue). The lecture is free and open to the public.

Sussman’s talk will be based on his presentation given at the February 2013 conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It stressed the need to understand how the adoption of strict biological determinism — formed out of the legitimate scientific theories of Darwin, Mendel and others in the 19th century — led to the eugenics movement in the U.S. and to the rise of Nazism, and overshadowed the profound role the anthropological concept of culture plays in human behavior.

“The key starting point for all these discussions should be the understanding that while all human behaviors are driven in some way by our genetic makeup, the vast majority of individual variances result from a person’s social, environmental and cultural exposure.”

In this lecture, Sussman will trace the earliest known forms of racism in European history, before the Spanish Inquisition, when different peoples were thought of as either Pre-Adamites, with biologically fixed characteristics that could not be changed by living conditions or by education, or as “degenerates,” a term used to describe people considered to be born of God and who could be improved by changing their habits and environment, in other words, they could be missionized or “civilized.”

However, in the early 1900s, some of the more blatant tenets of eugenics began to face challenges from an emerging body of scientific evidence supporting the important role that cultural experience, societal influence and environment play in shaping human behavior. The groundbreaking work of American anthropologist Franz Boas proved that some human traits could be changed by their environment.

Boas’ work, along with a re-synthesis of earlier work by Darwin and Mendel, helped build scientific support for a new and powerful anthropological concept of culture — the idea that how and what humans thought mainly was related to their life history, education and socialization.

Sussman, who has taught at the university since 1973, does extensive fieldwork in primate behavior and ecology in Costa Rica, Guyana, Madagascar and Mauritius. His research focuses on primate populations and threats to their habitats.

With more than 100 scholarly journal articles and several books to his credit, Sussman is a prolific author on a range of subjects related to his lifelong research and fieldwork. His most recent books, Origins of Cooperation and Altruism, co-edited with WUSTL colleague C. Robert Cloninger, MD, the Wallace Renard Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine, and Man the Hunted: Primate, Predators and Human Evolution, co-written with Donna Hart, were published in 2009 and 2011, respectively.

His work has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Geographic Society, World Wildlife Fund and the Fulbright Scholar Program, as well as a number of other agencies. He also serves as editor of the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology.

Sussman is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the highest recognition the organization bestows.

Sussman earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in anthropology from the University of California-Los Angeles and graduated with a PhD from Duke University in 1972.

For more information on this and other Assembly Series programs, visit