The Burden And The Gift Of Culture

(This post follows The Human Operating System in the FS Main Thread.)

Like fish in water, we are so immersed in our culture that it is hard to clearly see what culture is and how it functions. Yet we need this clear vision if we are to understand the world around us and be constructive participants in positive cultural change.

This article is a step toward such a clearer vision. I’ll be building on key concepts from The Core Challenge Of Our Times, Culture As Interface and The Human Operating System. As usual, I am using culture in its anthropological sense, which includes both a non-material side to culture (learned behaviors, beliefs, norms, skills etc.) and a material side (tools, clothing, buildings, technologies, artifacts etc.).

Humans require culture

Culture is an essential component of being human. In the same way that you can’t truly understand an animal species without knowing:

  • the physical anatomy of individual members of the species
  • their behavior
  • their relationship with other species, and
  • the habitat in which they are found

you can’t understand humans without knowing:

  • innate human nature, including physical anatomy and the human operating system (hOS)
  • the non-material culture of the group
  • their material culture, and
  • their relationship to their wider world.

Let’s look at this a little more closely. In The Human Operating System, I made a comparison between humans and many other animals with the help of the following diagram:

innate animal natures

This diagram acknowledges that many animals get everything they need to live successfully from their instincts without needing to learn skills from parents or anyone else. (It’s true that in the more social species, the young often do learn some things from their parents, but in many other species the young never even see their parents, and even when they do, they have everything they need to survive from the moment they are born or hatched.)

Humans, on the other hand, are totally dependent for years after birth. We must learn almost all of what we need to survive, and most of what we learn (like language) comes from our culture. As a species, we have evolved in such a way that we are, in fact, completely dependent on having and being part of a culture.

The crucial role that culture plays in our lives is both a burden and a gift. It is this role that I’d like to explore in this article.

Shouldering the burden

It’s understandable if we sometimes look wistfully at other animals with their sureness of instinct. How much easier to just know what to do based on instincts refined over millions of years! Yet, however appealing such a life may, at times, seem, it is not our life. Aside from reflexes, humans have few pure instincts, and what few we have seem to be mostly for infants, such as crying and sucking. As a child grows, even these gain cultural overlays. However you look at it, our dependence on culture is huge.

This dependence has evolutionary value or we wouldn’t still be here, but the flexibility and adaptability it provides can go wrong. Lots of cultures/societies/civilizations have failed, taking their members into oblivion with them. Examples run the gamut from Rome to Easter Island to the Maya to the Viking settlements on Greenland. While there were lots of immediate causes for these failures, frequently the culture itself played a significant role in its own demise.

As Jared Diamond describes in Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the poor social decision-making that leads to failure generally grows out of one or more of the following:

  • the failure to anticipate a problem before it actually arrives
  • the failure to perceive a problem once it has arrived
  • the failure to attempt to solve the problem even after it is perceived

These failures are often driven by such things as the role of special-interest selfishness, rigid belief systems that insisted on “staying the course” in the face of growing signs that change is needed, and the all-too-common denial with which humans confront unfamiliar conditions.

Cultural failure is not inevitable, but is it possible, so at the heart of the burden of culture is the realization that cultures must be cared for; they can’t be just left on auto-pilot or the results can be catastrophic.

While this has always been true, today the stakes are far higher since our issues are worldwide. Cultural mistakes that might have been a local disaster in the past now have the potential of taking down humanity and much of the biosphere. The responsibility to avoid that catastrophe rests on the shoulders of every person in every culture alive today. In parallel with a well-known saying, it would seem that the price of culture is eternal openness to change.

Receiving the gift

Yet while humanity’s dependence on culture may bring challenges, culture also offers us tremendous opportunities that take us well beyond instinct-based biological evolution. These gifts include:

Shared accumulated learning — Language, which is so fundamental to culture, allows us to learn from people we never meet — across time and space. We all get to stand on the shoulders of collective giants and benefit from the accumulated experience of literally billions of people.

Division of labor — Culture makes coordination, cooperation and the division of labor possible on scales vastly beyond anything seen within other species. It has enabled us to go to the moon and a million other things that no single person or family or small group could have done alone. The non-human world does have its intricate division of labor, but mostly it is between species rather than within one species, and its pace of change is limited by the pace of biological evolution.

Rapid adaptation — Even if a cultural change takes thousands of years, that is still much faster than the pace of biological evolution. These days, cultures are changing even faster. My current favorite example of a profound, rapid, worldwide cultural change is the recent growth in cellphone usage. The number of cellphone subscriptions went from 1.6% of the world’s population in 1995 to 16% in 2001 (a ten-fold increase in just 6 years!) to 86% of the world’s population (!) in 2011 (almost 6 billion cellphone subscriptions).

Cell phone subscriptions

An important caveat: Apparently in many countries, it is common for one person to have more than one subscription (via pre-paid cards) so these statistics don’t mean that 86% of the world’s people have cellphones (see more detail here). Nevertheless, the World Bank estimates that three-quarters of the world’s population had access to a cellphone in 2012, and that proportion continues to grow at a rapid rate. The number of people anywhere in the world who do not have at least a friend or family member with a cellphone is a quickly shrinking minority.

This worldwide spread of cellphones in just sixteen years is astonishing. It profoundly changes the information access and communications possibilities for the majority of the world’s adults and teens. Regardless of whether you feel this spread of cellphones is a good thing or not, it has a lot to teach those of us who are interested in cultural change.

Genuine innovation — Because of culture, humanity has been able to develop new behaviors and activities that have no parallel in biological evolution. There are millions of examples but let me just focus on two:

Literacy — The development of writing and reading, starting about 5,000 years ago, addressed the challenge of unreliable human memory. Before writing, oral cultures dealt with this challenge by creating stories, songs and poems that could be more reliably memorized than just simple speech. This worked remarkably well for culturally important material such as histories, laws and religious beliefs.

Yet, as settled life based on agriculture became more complicated (during the Neolithic transition between the Tribal Era and the Empire Era), the sheer volume of material that needed to be reliably remembered kept expanding and started to include more prosaic record-keeping like deeds to land, business contracts, and so on. Writing and reading succeeded as an innovations because they could handle this growing volume more efficiently and reliably than oral-tradition memorization.

The development of literacy was relatively slow by today’s standards. Written symbols for numbers were in use about 11,000 years ago, thousands of years before the first use of written symbols to represent language about 5,000 years ago.

For almost all of these 5,000 years, literacy was a largely elite skill. In 1900, likely less than 20% of the world’s population was literate, and it wasn’t until after World War II that the literacy rate exceeded 50%. The most recent UNESCO estimate puts the 2010 rate at 84%. Thus, even though literacy is thousands of years old, literacy for the majority of humanity is quite recent.

The relationship between literacy and the human operating system (hOS) follows a common pattern for cultural innovations. First, literacy is a cultural tool that compensates for the limitations of, and extends, an existing hOS capability (in this case, long-term memory). Second, it makes use of other existing hOS capabilities, such as eye-hand coordination for writing and visual pattern recognition for reading, but applies those capabilities in novel ways.

Flying — If literacy was a response to a growing need, the development of human flight was a response to an old desire in the context of fresh opportunities.

When the Wright brothers made their first manned powered flight in 1903, they did so with the help of earlier pioneers and all of the industrial development that provided the necessary pieces for their flying machine — so they stood on the shoulders of lots of accumulated learning and division of labor.

Their essential innovation — the idea that you needed three-axis control to fly safely — built on what the culture had learned so far and then made novel use of existing hOS capabilities such as our ability 1) to orient ourselves in space and 2) to coordinate senses (eyes, inner ear, etc.) with muscles (arms and legs).

They accomplished something that had been dreamed about for thousands of years, but that most “sensible” people saw as impossible and “against human nature.” These attitudes found lots of support in all of the failed attempts prior to the Wright brothers’ success.

As we look back on these and countless other cultural innovations, there are some common characteristics:

  • The impetus for the innovation may have been either a problem to be solved or an opportunity to be seized.
  • The innovation often built on existing pieces that the culture provided and then added one or more crucial new pieces. Literacy built on language and materials for recording (e.g. clay for tablets). Flying built on the growing capabilities of science and industry.
  • Before the innovation succeeded, most people either couldn’t imagine it or considered it impossible.
  • There were often failed attempts before success.
  • After success, the problems that were overcome didn’t seem as daunting and their solutions now seemed obvious.

Self-guided evolution — Culture is created, modified and adopted by people. These processes are surprisingly democratic although there is rarely any formal voting. An innovation may be started by a single person but it won’t become part of the culture unless others choose in their own behavior to adopt that innovation. For example, someone may create a new word but the word won’t enter the language unless others also learn it and use it.

This kind of cultural evolution can proceed in a largely unconscious and uncoordinated way, but even then it is still being driven by human choices. It can also become a more conscious process. For better and for worse, today there are many groups attempting, in a conscious coordinated way, to nudge cultural evolution in one direction or another.

The gift of culture is that it enables us to be human — nothing less. It allows us to build on what others (across time and space) have learned, to collaborate in complex social systems and to change much faster than biological evolution. Today’s successful cultures will keep that evolution moving forward.

Building the future

As we look toward the future, it is important to remember the human tendency to view the problems we haven’t solved yet as much harder than ones we (or our fore-bearers) have already solved. It is easy to look at the challenges we currently face (like climate change, the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels, eroding topsoil, species extinction, growing rich/poor income gap, etc. ), declare them to be unsolvable and blame our failure to deal with them on “human nature.” For example, a favorite reason given for our failure so far to seriously deal with climate change is that it isn’t “human nature” to give priority to issues that change slowly, over decades.

I would suggest instead that our current mainstream cultures don’t provide us with the tools that enable society to effectively deal with issues like climate change. Without such tools we fall back on tendencies to discount the future and to suppress our awareness of slow changes by simply continually adjusting to them as the new normal. Yet this behavior is a statement about where we are in cultural evolution, not about the ultimate capacity of the human system.

Can humans fly? Of course we can — with the help of those expressions of accumulated human learning that we call airplanes, hang gliders and so on. “Ah, but that’s cheating!” some object. They want to know if humans in their natural state can fly. But what is the natural state for humans? Is it devoid of all culture? Hardly. No child could survive without the support of some surrounding culture and no one reaches adulthood without internalizing some culture. The notion of “natural state” that make sense for other species (i.e. isolated from human influence) doesn’t apply to humans. The natural state for humans is to have and be part of a culture — and that includes both the non-material side (ideas, behaviors, skills, etc.) and the material side (tools, buildings, technologies, etc.). Airplanes and hang gliders are part of the natural state of humans in 2013.

Can humans rise to challenges like climate change? Of course we can — with the help of those expressions of accumulated human learning that will give us what we need to solve the puzzle. We just don’t know what these are yet. It is possible that we will never find them. Cultural failure does happen, but we are not there yet and premature pronouncement of failure is not a path to success.

If we are to solve these puzzles, we will need to do what successful cultures have done for at least the past 10,000 years: innovate, adapt and evolve.

In sum

I hope you will take away the following key points from this article:

  • Culture is an inescapable — and natural — part of what it means to be human.
  • Culture allows us to accumulate and share learning, specialize and collaborate, adapt quickly, and innovate.
  • Culture is created, modified and adopted by the people who share it. It is controlled by no one and influenced by everyone.
  • We are creating our own evolution, going farther and faster than instinct-based biological evolution.
  • Cultures can fail. If today’s highly interconnected major cultures were to fail now it could be catastrophic for many of the world’s natural systems as well as all of humanity.
  • The way forward requires us to innovate and adapt these cultures to meet the challenges of our times.

Robert Gilman, February 28, 2013

Do you see ways this article could be improved? If you do, please let me know.

(The next piece in the FS Main Thread is Two Essential Literacies.)