Cultivating Culture: Emergence or emergency?
By Jonathan Golick
Copyright J. Golick 2003 ©
All rights reserved. No use without permission.
In 1994 I spent several months in Mali, West Africa. It is a country with a rich and ancient cultural heritage where more than a dozen local languages are spoken. At first the unfamiliar social customs and elaborate interpersonal protocols made even the simplest interactions perplexing. I was dazed by the alien culture and the sub-Saharan heat. What jumped out of the blur of new experience and what I often found most arresting were oddly de-contextualized glimpses of the familiar.
For most people who live in the capitol, Bamako, the courtyard is the place for group domestic activity. It serves for washing and cooking and eating and playing and drinking tea and socializing. When there are important soccer matches, the few who own televisions set them up in courtyards where family and friends crowd in to watch the game. When the national team scores a goal, raucous cheering can be heard all over Bamako. During my stay, on Sunday nights at 9 o’clock a hush would descend on the city as groups gathered in courtyards to watch reruns of Dynasty dubbed in French.
I got to know a musician of the traditional griot caste, Toumani Diabate, who plays the cora, a 21-stringed African harp. He is a descendant of seventy generations of cora players. He knows songs and stories that his family has preserved for more than a thousand years. In the courtyard where locals and foreigners come to him for lessons, I met a group of neighborhood kids who wanted to know if it was true that Michael Jackson was the richest boy in the world.
Beyond the city limits, long straight two-lane blacktop roads connect the major towns and villages. Traffic is generally light — people traveling on foot sometimes following herds of curly-horned cattle, carts pulled by ox or donkeys, a few bicycles and motorbikes. Trucks, buses, cars pass infrequently. Every 100 kilometers or so there is a sturdy billboard supported by stout steel pipes bearing the familiar full-color image of the Marlboro Man in his white cowboy hat, cigarette tucked rakishly in the corner of his mouth. I suspect that at the time, this was one of very few Western images that many people encountered on a regular basis.
In fact, the spread of Western technology and culture seemed moderate. While the state religion is Islam, there are still ethnic groups who adhere proudly to their animist heritage and beliefs. The radio was completely free of American music though the broadcast fare indicated that some local musicians were undergoing an unfortunate fascination with the electronic beat-box. Most of the limited television schedule was local. Most people dressed in brilliantly colored local fashions. Yet for some reason there was a proliferation of Chicago Bulls merchandise — t-shirts and caps. There was also a proliferation of blue plastic shopping bags which blew through the ancient dusty streets like tumbleweed, past the weavers at their looms and the shoeshine boys with their wooden boxes, who can clean or mend any shoe, including a rubber flip-flop, while you wait.
Individual living things seem precariously balanced in a state of temporary dynamic equilibrium that at any moment threatens to succumb to the forces of entropy, moving the organization of the molecules towards a state of disorder, inertia, death. A small variation in the environment can precipitate a catastrophic effect. A few bacteria can bring down an elephant. Or a few grams of lead. Yet on a global scale, life is remarkable in its dynamic resilience, its adaptability and ingenuity, its unity and diversity. Dead elephant molecules are quickly reorganized as bacteria molecules.
A scientific definition of “species” that tries to encompass the characteristic properties of natural biological groupings is remarkably hard to pin down. Whether on the basis of reproductive isolation, morphological differentiation and stability, or statistical genetic relationship, all the definitions present gray areas. In bacteria, the most populous creatures on earth, where gene transfer can be lateral, between living individuals, the notion of species nearly dissolves entirely.
In these pages I wish to present some thoughts on biology and culture, on how organisms get along together, and on human attempts to manage the dynamic relationships we have evolved with other species and within our own.
The ideas that I bring forward are assembled from many sources. In Being About, Ellie Epp sets out a detailed picture of biological and neural knowing, how a simple life-form can know, how knowing evolves in creatures that possess nervous systems, and how all knowing is physical, structural. Being About, with its insistence on seeing organisms as whole bodies in material locations, has been a major inspiration to me affording an entirely new perspective on life and human being. In her work towards achieving an integrated vision of planetary processes, geoscientist Lynn Margulis has shown the power of symbiosis as an essential source of evolutionary novelty. Merlin Donald portrays the interwoven evolution of cognition and culture as co-evolution of internal (cognitive) and external (environmental) structure; that is, the world we make in turn makes us. Edwin Hutchins writes about distributed cognition, how we use tools, “material anchors,” to coordinate collective cognitive activity. Michael Pollan’s insightful and entertaining analysis of cultivation from the plant’s point-of-view is a source of fresh thinking about domestication, species interdependence and human cultural practices that affect these interactions.
We are a young species (though trying to pin down exactly how young is the subject of continuous debate). Our special abilities and capacities emerged recently – humans have been writing for only about 5000 years. The Western scientific tradition is but a few hundred years old. Yet we behave as if we are the font and repository of all earthly and heavenly knowledge and wisdom. Our insights have often been hampered by false intuitions about simple causality. (We naturally model our understanding of causal forces on human agency.) Linear, mechanistic explanations for complex, dynamic natural processes have been offered with disappointing and sometimes disastrous results.
In the long run, will evolutionary forces select for better, more intelligent human institutions? Will errant systems of knowledge and social organization eventually be weeded out, adapt or die? Will ecological and social pressures exert such force that they outweigh the influence of the institutions whose economic needs drive Western cultural change? I believe they will, provided humanity doesn’t commit a fatal blunder first.
While the picture I offer regarding the course of the evolution of human society may seem pessimistic, I find optimism in the remarkable dynamic interactions that emerge in all living systems – including our own.
Cultivating Culture: Emergence or emergency?
Living organisms are tricky. They are unlike inorganic matter. Living things actively change their structure, the organization of their cells and molecules, in close correspondence with regular variations of their immediate environments. Growth, digestion, movement — all are structural alterations of an organism interacting with the world around it. Even the simplest organism is not passive. An organism is coupled to its surroundings, taking advantage of aspects of the world that it has come to depend on for its continued stability. Being alive is dynamic interaction.
The universe is chaotic but not random. Within the ceaseless flux that surrounds us some features are constant, some relationships fixed, some processes cyclic. We can count on certain kinds of stability in nature: the rising and setting of the sun and the moon, the progress of the seasons, the density and persistence of various forms of matter. Water behaves consistently and reliably: freezing temperature, boiling point and specific gravity are physical constants which change systematically relative to contextual conditions like pressure. There are other constants associated with light and gravity. Properties and processes of the world that are stable, regular and change systematically are sometimes referred to as invariants.
A creature responds to a particular feature of the world by changing itself in a particular way. An organism’s response and the way it co-varies with a particular world-feature is determined in evolution by interactions over many generations. Moment by moment a creature remakes itself with respect to what it is and has available — its capabilities and environmental footholds or affordances — and what it needs to continue to survive and propagate. Its current structure is dependent not only on changes that take place during the lifetime of the individual creature but on changes over the course of the evolutionary history of its species and beyond, all the way back to the first self-replicating molecules and the beginnings of life; the continuous dynamic interaction of life with the world of which it is an integral part.
Regularities in the world are built into the very design of living things. Properties of the way water behaves are embodied in the fins and skin of fish and in the design of living cells which take advantage of such properties of water as its ability to alter or carry some molecules and its ability to pass through certain molecular arrangements and not others.
As well, there are constant aspects of an organism’s world in continuous change. No creature lives in isolation from the other life forms that abound in the environment. Organisms interact and co-evolve in complex ways. In the most familiar case of species interaction, the predator-prey relationship, one organism is another’s food. In other cases, organisms affect each other indirectly by modifying their mutual environment, the way beavers produce a good home for frogs by creating a pond. Some of the most common and important relationships in nature are where two or more organisms become entwined in a tightly bound, long-term evolutionary relationship. When the organisms are of different species biologists call it symbiosis; when the interacting creatures are of the same species it is called social behavior. Symbiotic relationships can be parasitic, where one organism benefits to the detriment of another; commensal, where one organism benefits from the relationship and the other is unaffected; or mutual, where all players benefit — though in the real world these relationships are not so neatly categorized. Domestication, for example, is mutual symbiosis, where one species provides sustenance for another in exchange for hospitable living conditions and reproductive advantages.
Interdependent organisms evolve in dynamic synchrony with each other over generations, mutual sources of systematic behavior which are embodied in evolving abilities. In the predator-prey relationship, a kind of evolutionary arms race can emerge, where the effective capacities of a predator put pressure on a population of prey to evolve and improve avoidance strategies: speed, visual and olfactory acuity, camouflage, or even group-level behaviors, for example where members of a herd take turns keeping watch while others graze. Improvements on one side of the relationship demand compensatory responses from the other.
In the evolution of mutual symbioses an astonishing range of complex patterns of co-evolution have emerged. Numerous insect and plant species have evolved intricate relationships. There are individual species of fig wasp that have co-evolved exclusively with particular species of fig tree. Bearing a load of pollen to fertilize the fig, a wasp enters the fruit — in reality, a flower that evolution has turned inside-out — to lay its eggs. The fig provides a nursery for larvae which, when they emerge as adults, take a load of pollen with them. Two species working in such an exchange co-evolve very specific interlocking morphological traits. Flowers may have brush-like appendages which apply pollen to pollinators; pollinators may have basket-like structures that carry pollen.
Even more common in nature are symbiotic relationships between complex organisms and microscopic organisms like bacteria, protozoa or fungi, where a large creature becomes the preferred habitat of a small one, which in turn furnishes critical biochemical processes for its host. There are certain microbes found only in specific environments like the digestive systems of termites, where they are responsible for turning wood into usable sustenance. Cows and other ruminants have evolved a specialized organ, the rumen, that provides a hospitable environment for micro-organisms that break down otherwise indigestible cellulose. One hundred trillion similar microbes inhabit the human digestive system. Many such organisms, in evolving specific interactions with a host, have diverged evolutionarily from their free-living forebears, so that a single species of microbe comes to exist only within a single species of host. Certain bacteria are endemic to the roots of specific plants, which, in exchange for a favorable living environment — often within the tissues of the plant itself (galls, root nodules) — provide such necessary nutrients as nitrogen in a chemical form accessible to the plant. Trees have a long-standing relationship with fungi which live in the soil tangled in the roots (occasionally producing the spore-forming bodies we know as truffles). If all the earth’s fungi were suddenly wiped out, plant and animal life would quickly disappear.
The entomologist E. O. Wilson has called ants “the premier social insects.” Some ants excavate elaborate underground labyrinths of passages and caverns. Different classes of workers fulfilling different functions within the social structure have become anatomically distinct (polymorphic). Ants have also evolved some fascinating symbioses. The leaf-cutter (attine) ants of Central and South America are familiar by their picturesque processions of workers carrying sizable pieces of leaves above their heads like green umbrellas. These ants are notorious in the tropics for their ability to strip the vegetation from a field or a grove of trees with devastating speed. But they do not eat the foliage that disappears underground into the nest. Instead, the leaf pieces are chewed into successively smaller bits by a series of successively smaller worker ants. The macerated leaves are carefully added to the mat that forms a growth medium for a particular species of fungus which breaks down the vegetable matter and grows tiny nutrient-rich structures that form the basis of the ants’ diet. Ant colonies have been found that contain millions of ants, thousands of openings, ventilation shafts and chambers, and hundreds of mold gardens meticulously tended by tiny worker ants. Another participant in the symbiosis is a bacteria with antibiotic properties that lives on the exterior of the ants’ bodies and helps keep the garden free of parasitic micro-organisms — weeds. In fact, the most common parasite that ants have to contend with is a single species of fungus found only in ant gardens. Ants have been tending their fungal gardens for fifty million years. The most evolutionary modern genus of ants, Atta, maintains a single genetic strain of fungus that has been in use for twenty million years, transported from nest to nest as a pellet in the mouth of the founding queen. The ants and the fungi keep each other alive.
In The Botany of Desire, journalist and gardener Michael Pollan looks at human agriculture from the point of view of plants. He observes that wild grasses possess the genetic capacity to produce forms, the edible grains, so appealing to humans as to induce them to clear away forests to make way for cultivation. Or as Pollan puts it, “agriculture [is] something grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees.”
Perhaps the most widespread and dramatic example of one organism indirectly affecting the evolution of others by modifying the environment is that of the earliest photosynthetic bacteria, which over perhaps a billion years gradually altered the earth’s atmospheric content, making available the oxygen that supports all the numerous and complex forms of aerobic life.
Clearly, such processes have been absolutely fundamental to the unfolding of planetary life. Evidence of symbiotic relationships which initiated the evolution of cellular complexity billions of years ago is present in every cell of our bodies. Mitochondria, the parts of plant, animal and fungus cells that make energy available for nearly all cellular processes, were once autonomous bacteria with a particular knack for biochemical energy exchange. They formed an allegiance with another simple one-celled organism possessing little inner structure of its own. The bacteria, engulfed but not digested, found safe harbor in a new habitat; the host cell gained a new source of energy. In a process called symbiogenesis a new organism was created from the permanent union of two others. Thus began a new chapter in evolution. Cellular mitochondria possess relics of their former independence in the membrane that encloses them and in a loop of their own genetic material, separate from the DNA within the nucleus of the surrounding cell. Similarly, chloroplasts in green plant cells responsible for photosynthesis were once free-living photosynthetic bacteria that evolved a relationship with another cell, a relationship which became intimate over time until the functions of the two cells were wholly incorporated. The organisms can have no viable independent existence. Conversely, some things that appear to be single organisms are colonies of individuals, as in the case of jellyfish. Lichens, one of the most widely distributed life-forms, are in reality, an intimate alliance between fungi, algae and bacteria that has played a key role in planetary evolution turning rock into nutrient-rich soil for hundreds of millions of years.
A simple organism maintains stability through time embodying structural responses to a small set of the regularities and properties of the world of which it is part. Homeostasis, the collection of processes for self-regulation and maintenance, is anything but static. It is the dynamic means by which a creature maintains its own internal balance with respect to its changing circumstances. It involves interactions between the creature’s functional parts in conjunction with environmental changes specifically relevant to the creature’s survival. Homeostatic functions are sometimes described as being automatic but that doesn’t really do adequate justice to the evolutionary history or the intricacy of the interdependent processes that come together in homeostasis. What is implied is that homeostasis takes place without the necessity of choice or conscious reasoning or knowledge, in our ordinary sense of the word.
When we talk about knowing we usually reserve the term for relatively complicated creatures with central nervous systems and brains. People know their own names. A dog knows its owner’s smell. A pigeon knows its way home. A penguin chick knows its mother. But what does a jellyfish know? Or a plant? Or a one-celled creature? Or a human blastocyst bathing in amniotic fluid?
The kind of knowing that an organism like a plant does is built into the form and chemistry of its tissues. It can’t identify, remember or deliberate the way people can. The kind of knowing people do — at least the kind of knowing we know as knowing — can be conscious, purposeful. Knowing for us is internal, mental, but it is nonetheless physical, structural.
How do the roots of a dormant plant know it’s spring? Cells in the root respond to changes in moisture and temperature and chemical composition of the soil. How does the plant know that if it starts its annual growth cycle and puts out shoots that break through the surface of the soil into daylight, it won’t meet a killing frost, squandering the stored-up energy that the plant expended on fruitless growth? We might say that it doesn’t know, not for sure. Plants make mistakes. Seasons are variable. It sometimes happens that a late killer frost wipes out spring growth.
But consider the bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, which reliably, every spring, produces one of the first blooms on the forest floor in my nearby (southern Québec) woods. If the resources necessary for its continued survival were depleted beyond a certain point it would be unable to create the structures (leaves with chlorophyll, root systems) it needs to replenish itself and would be unable to reproduce. Yet through years of variable thaws and frosts, this particular configuration of cells that we call sanguinaria has proven flexible enough to accommodate every climactic extreme it has encountered.
The knowledge a plant possesses has accumulated over two to three billion years of biological evolution. What a plant knows about are aspects of the world that are consistent and relevant to living, like energy and nutrients and defenses against predation. The regularities of the world are inbuilt, inherent in the design of the plant. Living things come into being in collaboration with the world. They are embedded in a consistent world whose regularities are embodied in them. Evolutionary success of an organism can be seen as a successful embodiment, a coherent coupling between a changing organism and its changing world. Survival depends on the cohesion between the organism and its world.
A complex creature embodies many different kinds of regularities in detailed ways. Perceptual abilities allow a creature more intimate contact with the world. Vision, smell, hearing: Perception gives a creature immediate access to more of the world, embodying a greater range of salient features of the environment in its physical arrangement. The creature encompasses more of the world and at the same time is more tightly embraced by the world, more intricately bound to it. Creatures that possess such sensitivities have evolved in a kind of collaborative contact with electromagnetic radiation (light, heat), with airborne chemical traces (odors), with cyclic variations in air pressure (sound) and with the important relationships these reveal about the world. Organisms have integrated properties of these phenomena into their design and behavior.
Central nervous systems and complex brains evolved to coordinate and integrate: to coordinate and integrate a large, complex, self-propelled creature with its surroundings, by coordinating and integrating the sensation and control of its parts (which are spaced further and further apart with the evolution of larger, more complex creatures, and which also spread as an individual grows), tightening the link between perceiving and acting.
Many species have evolved complex behaviors and practices that depend on cooperation, on the coordination of behavior and on a sensitivity to other members of the same species. The more successful creatures are in merely recognizing each other (as conspecifics, mates, offspring, relatives, group members, individuals) the more detailed and intricate will be their cooperative strategies. Creatures that know more about each other will be more successful in predicting or affecting or evoking each others’ actions, more successful in coordinating themselves — their embodied knowledge — with their conspecifics. They will be more intimate cooperators.
Ants exhibit a panoply of intricate social behaviors, from nest building and organizing to functional differentiation amongst castes to domestication of aphids and fungi. Ant communication is achieved by altering the environment with chemical traces. Bees communicate through ritualized dances. Insect colonies like ant hills and beehives are sometimes likened to superorganisms that collectively exhibit behaviors that resemble functions associated with autonomous creatures. Even with their limited neural structures insects achieve collective intelligence through coordinated action.
In any creature where the young are born dependent on parental nurturing, sociality of some kind is necessary for survival. This necessity lies behind the development of many elaborated patterns of familial and group behavior. In some bird species, sexually immature year-old birds will help care for newly hatched siblings. In some mammals immatures are cared for by a collective. Some animals have evolved large-scale patterns of coordinated behavior: birds flock, mammalian predators hunt in packs, grazing animals herd.
In these cases, patterns of behavior are stable across many generations. Behaviors may change suddenly in response to drastic environmental change, such as sudden climate shift or a move to a new habitat. But within a relatively stable environment, social behavior in these species will remain relatively stable, changes moving slowly through a population across generations by genetic distribution.
Careful observation of primates has led to the understanding that culture, the process by which patterns of behavior are spread through a population by imitation and learning, is not limited to humans. Our closest cousins, chimpanzees, have a variety of behaviors confined to specific communities and spread by imitation, for example, fishing for termites with a leaf rib or using leaves as toilet paper. Likewise orangutans, our most distant great ape cousins, exhibit behaviors that are cultural, including the use of simple tools and ritualized greetings. Primatologist Carel Von Schaik hypothesizes that the ability to coordinate behavior this way must have arisen at least fourteen million years ago amongst the common ancestors of chimpanzees and orangutans.
Emerging humans refined this kind of coordination to new levels of depth and detail. The multiplicity of advantages that detailed coordination afforded made it a potent force in the refinement and spread of physical and behavioral adaptations in humans. It is by means of this refinement that humans have achieved their great numbers and wide global distribution, their ingenuity in adapting to any environment by adapting the environment to themselves.
According to the archaeological record, since the human evolutionary path split from the other primates about six million years ago, human anatomy underwent a series of alterations that led to the emergence of the familiar human form about 100,000 years ago. Changes to the skeletal structure accompanied a preference for walking upright. Changes to brain size and organization and changes in the vocal production mechanisms accompanied a preference for living together in tightly bound association. About 50,000 years ago the changes precipitated an explosion in human artifact production. Archaeologist Richard Klein has said, “There was a kind of behavioral revolution 50,000 years ago. Nobody made art before 50,000 years ago; everybody did afterward.”
The most obvious difference between humans and our nearest relatives is in the widespread manufacture and use of complex tools and artifacts — especially symbolic and communicational tools which make possible complex social organization and the ability to accumulate and refine knowledge about the world.
What these abilities and practices rest on, capitalize on, refine and accentuate, is our highly developed ability for coordinating our internal structure with each other.
Cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, has developed a model of brain-culture co-evolution that shows the development of human cognitive capacities as being intertwined with our evolving use of different representational techniques, distinctive human cognitive structures emerging from interactions between people and a human-altered environment. He identifies three distinct phases occurring with the successive adoption of imitative gesture, symbolic language and writing as strategies of representing the world for the purpose of communication.
In Donald’s model, humans’ earliest representational strategy, based on physiology and practices most closely resembling those of our primate ancestors, were mimetic, or imitative, using physical gesture (based on neurological findings, cognitive neuroscientist Michael Corballis suggests hand signals predominated ) to indicate and refer in a non-symbolic way, what Donald calls “public action-metaphor,” probably including an expanding repertoire of facial expressions. This style of communication provided improved but still crude tools for modeling and understanding the world, and good tools for coordinating people. Music, dance and theater are practices which probably first arose as pre-linguistic, coordinative strategies based on gestures of the body.
These are practices by which people use their shared environment to coordinate with each other — not just their behavior but their physical organization. People became more closely attuned by conjointly aligning aspects of bodies and brains by way of an environment containing a flowering of communicative acts and objects. At the same time, the survival advantages of this increasingly more detailed alignment promoted its spread. The changing cultural environment selected for the malleable brain structures which accommodated such coordination. The faster cultural/neural communicational tools were refined and spread, the faster and more accurately they were able to be refined and spread, in a kind of evolutionary feedback loop.
But it was with the emergence of language and true symbolic practices that early humans became like modern ones. The use of symbols is widely recognized as the adaptation which truly distinguishes people, what Donald calls “the principle cognitive signature of humans.”
Language provides a system of vocal and body gestures by which we can evoke meaningful structures in each other and in ourselves. The gestures we use are minimal relative to the complexity of the relations they can evoke, relying for their communicative power on the activation of equivalent structures in the communicators.
Successful communication depends on common structure. Linguistic communication requires a shared language: equivalent associations between word sounds and arrangement and internal structures of meaning. Spoken language additionally relies on subtle visual cues between speakers which we unconsciously use all the time. For example, a common phrase like, “Hey, look at that!,” usually accompanied by a movement of the head, a mere tilt of the chin, is an invitation to share attention by directing it to something in the common environment. The phrase is devoid of meaning unless we know the setting and orientation of the speaker and have access to the object of interest. Strategies like gaze-following and sharing of attention are skills acquired from our primate ancestors, necessary for linguistic competence. Such cognitive skills, precursors for the development of sophisticated communication in early humans, were refined in evolution and are further refined in individual development.
Paul Bloom, a researcher in developmental psychology and child language acquisition at Yale, conducted an experiment which demonstrates one way in which gaze-following and attention-sharing are used in human communication, in this case, the learning of new words by a child.
A three-year-old child and a researcher faced each other with several objects between them. Some of the objects were novel, created for the experiment. When the researcher said an unfamiliar word while looking at an unfamiliar object, subjects understood the word to be the name of the object at which the researcher was looking and used the name appropriately. In taking this subtle cue from the researcher, a child showed the understanding that another speaker is a person like herself, possessed of knowledge and beliefs that may be different from her own. To perform this act of double inference — that the word the researcher is speaking is a name and that it is the name of this particular object — she must know that other people have an intention in speaking, and that this intention is manifested by familiar patterns of behavior that can be understood through reciprocal patterns of behavior. By looking where the researcher looks, attending to the object of her attention, the child can mean what the researcher means.
True symbolic language gave its users unprecedented power to model reality individually and collectively, to discover, express, share, accumulate and refine new strategies and previously undetected relationships. Observations of the world and successful behaviors could be shared and refined within a community, spread to other communities, and passed on to succeeding generations. This greatly accelerated the creation and spread of new strategies for living. The ability to rapidly accrete and refine knowledge, building on what has come before, has been called a “ratchet effect.”
Language is a strong cohesive force. It allows the creation of narratives and myths embedding knowledge of the world and social ideals that cohere a community around a set of beliefs. It gives the power to structurally organize and coordinate ourselves: to organize neural structure of the members of a group by conjoining that structure to a common, collaboratively maintained system of symbols that can be simultaneously external and internal, simultaneously collective and individual.
The third phase in Donald’s depiction of human cognitive evolution came about independent of obvious physiological changes. The invention of writing around five thousand years ago brought with it a new set of cognitive capabilities. Writing allows us to circumvent the constraints of working memory, which is transient and limited in capacity. We can only think about a limited number of things at once, in limited detail and it takes time and effort, inner rehearsal, to sustain them. By using written symbols to keep track, we can work with an unlimited number of stable elements.
This change in representational strategy allowed for detailed coordination, communication, and collaboration over time and distance. It made possible the collaborative construction of large and complex theoretical systems for describing and communicating complex relationships. Writing makes us smarter as individuals by giving us the ability to immediately create stable physical anchors for things we’re thinking about. It makes us smarter as a species by providing stable representations which can be shared among peers and transmitted between generations. It provides us with further means to coordinate ourselves in ever more detailed and precise ways.
Culture is a process through which survival strategies, aspects of world invariance, and successful patterns of interaction are refined and accumulated in the creation and maintenance of public artifacts, practices and systems of organization. E. O. Wilson observed that “culture can be interpreted as a hierarchical system of environmental tracking devices.” Practices spread through a population and pass between generations with ongoing accumulation of novelty and refinement.
Culture evolved (and continues to evolve) as the means by which we synchronize ourselves with other members of a community. Culture is a process which gives us common systems of organization to deal with the world around us as individuals and in groups.
Beyond the functional significance of cultural processes, the evolving cultural environment is the source of salient invariance in the evolution and development of human cognitive structures. Through our use of communicative tools and technologies we have created a human milieu, an environment of intentional objects and systems, that has changed our nature, altered our physical organization and our abilities and changed our relationships with other organisms.
Human capacities and their functional environment emerged over a span of five to six million years in a relatively small, geographically compact population. Those conditions no longer exist. The human population is now huge, diffused into all the climactic regions of the earth. While we can easily enumerate many of the consequent abilities we have acquired, there is currently no way to find out the kinds of small-scale structural changes that may have evolved over the last fifty thousand years in response to the proliferation of symbolic artifacts.
It seems clear that at least some of the structural change is directly attributable to the developmental environment, the culturally-structured world in which a baby becomes an adult. (It’s worth noting that ethnically or nationally distinct cultural systems are virtually interchangeable, providing a developmental environment producing adults with very similar cognitive capacities and only superficial differences.) To what extent our fundamental genetic makeup has been altered by the cultural environment over the last fifty thousand years is not knowable by current techniques.
Modern humans are separated from a small African population by an estimated six thousand generations. While the superficial characteristics we attribute to ethnicity emerged in genetically isolated populations long ago, since then, human genetic mixing has been widespread. Our long-standing habits of wandering and intermarriage throughout history have kept the gene pool swirling. Steve Olson, author of Mapping Human History, says that “the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive today probably lived just a few thousand years ago” An implication for evolution is that no population exists in long-term genetic isolation, which is a condition for accumulating genetic differentiation. Our pool of genetic possibility is widely shared. Humans are much more similar genetically than other species of large animals (partly due to our relative evolutionary youth, partly to our wandering ways). It is probably impossible to discern what kinds of selective pressures are exerted on the human population as a whole in response to the kinds of changes we see in our current environment.
As with the emergence of writing, widespread changes in response to cultural affordances are possible independent of genetic change. Even if our genes are not implicated, fundamental biochemical processes of human life are affected by our culturally defined interactions with the world.
While it seems hardly the case today, from an evolutionary perspective, cultural practices arose from successful interactions between people and the world. Whether techniques and technologies of communication or of hunting, farming or child-rearing, they emerged and were refined and preserved over time because of their ability to optimize the resources of the users.
Over generations, humans evolved symbiotic relationships with certain other species. Cultural practices emerged to optimize and perpetuate these evolving relationships. Agricultural practices that arose in a specific environment could harness complex sets of ecological interdependencies without any knowledge of the hidden complexities. Even the practice of spreading manure on a field deploys trillions of microbes, players in the intricate symbioses that produce the food we rely on.
Over seven thousand years ago ancestors of the Incas in the Andes mountains first domesticated the potato. During those years, agricultural practices emerged to deal with the variable geography and harsh climate. These include landscape modifications such as terraced fields and raised beds. They also include a reliance on genetic diversity. These farmers have developed over two hundred different potato cultivars of which a given planting may contain twenty or more. Where some varieties might be susceptible to disease or drought, others are resistant. The traditional systems of Andean agriculture include means for insuring the ongoing viability and fertility of plots through strategies of rotation and polyculture. The symbiotic bacteria that live within the roots of legumes planted as a rotational crop restore nitrogen levels in the soil.
The potato was introduced to Spain in around 1570. Though at first resisted by a skeptical and conservative populace, within two hundred years it had become a staple of the European diet. Its high nutritional value, high per-acre yield and relative simplicity in cultivation gave it considerable value as a food crop.
The potato came to Europe without its surrounding agricultural practices and without the wide genetic base that Andean farmers rely on as insurance against drought and disease. When a particular fungus arrived in Europe, it proved deadly to the few cultivars Europeans had imported. In Ireland, where social and political forces had pushed the population into total dependence on a single strain of a single food crop, the results were devastating. A million people died of starvation.
In the industrialized world subsistence practices have been replaced by commercial agriculture. Taking advantage of economies of scale in the effort to feed an expanding population concentrated in cities, the practices that have arisen have reduced the number of people that directly interact with soil and plants and do the actual farming, but increased the numbers that expect to benefit indirectly from the production and distribution of food. Think of the number of people that derive (nonnutritive) advantage from food: the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, the petroleum and transportation industries, banks and insurance companies, processing and packaging, marketing and retailing, not to mention all of their shareholders — all part of the industrial food chain.
Monoculture is a modern solution to the problem of feeding the masses. Millions of acres are devoted to the uniform production of genetically uniform crops. The inherent weakness in monoculture as exemplified by the Irish potato famine, susceptibility to catastrophic infection, is managed by chemical means. Fields are routinely prepared for planting by eradicating all life with a series of powerful antibacterials, fungicides, defoliants and insecticides. (One teaspoon of compost rich organic soil hosts 600 million to 1 billion beneficial microbes from 15,000 species.) The developing plants are also regularly treated. Chemical nutrients are provided via automated irrigation systems. After spraying with certain pesticides, fields are too toxic for people to enter. Symbiosis becomes antibiosis.
This type of agriculture has certain disadvantages for the long term. Modern economic strategies maximize immediate gain by ignoring future consequences. By arresting the life-processes that constitute normal soil biology, the intricate interactions of beneficial microbes are removed from the process and the soil is rapidly depleted of naturally occurring nutrients. The widespread introduction of antibiotics into the environment puts pressure on bacteria to evolve survival strategies like chemical resistance, rendering a particular antibiotic useless for the future. The loss of heterogeneous landscapes has led to the decline of many species of birds and mammals. The global pool of genetic variation is shrinking.
Monoculture extends beyond the field through industrial processing to the consumer, to whom food is presented as a uniform product. The most efficient way for a corporation to get its comestible product to market is to process and package millions of identical items and market and publicize uniform products. The very ideal of the perfect apple or French fry, that such a thing should exist and be desirable, is a direct result of the same social forces that actively promote agricultural monoculture.
What are the essential differences between ant agriculture, traditional subsistence agriculture and modern industrial agriculture?
One obvious difference is time scale. Whereas the ants have had fifty million years to work out the details, human farmers have had ten thousand years while the industrial system has developed over the last fifty.
While the ants’ system is truly emergent, arising directly from evolutionary interactions between species and environment and spreading through populations slowly by genetic means, the Andean system of potato cultivation came out of deliberate human trial and error and was refined and spread by the participants amongst themselves. Subsistence farmers working intensively and continuously with plants and soil acquire a feeling for patterns of interaction that a farmer using automated means can never know. Inherent learning builds direct knowledge, even without a theoretical understanding of underlying principles, leading to successful strategies of interaction. Over a long course of trial and error, Andean potato growers have encountered and accommodated seven thousand years of environmental variation.
The modern agro-industrial approach attempts to control those factors and systems of which it has explicit knowledge. Unfortunately, due to a sort of rationalist hubris, this knowledge, though constantly expanding, is applied as if it were complete and comprehensive. Furthermore, cultural practices are not promoted and propagated by the practitioners themselves but by the institutions that have arisen around agriculture: government regulatory bodies, financial institutions, chemical producers. In traditional societies, cultural practices are developed and maintained by the practitioners, while in a modern industrial society they are often sustained by outside agencies.
This does not imply that traditional agriculture is necessarily better, more productive, more adaptive than modern technological agriculture. What it suggests is that a technology that has not emerged from sustained real-world interactions may not encompass real-world complexity as finely. An explicitly devised system can account for only those characteristics that are explicitly recognized and designed in.
The cultural systems that have emerged which control modern agriculture are responding to a wide range of pressures well beyond the scope of maintaining and optimizing an intricate symbiotic economy between people, land and crops. While the ultimate goal of agriculture as a whole is sustainable sustenance, the goal of the agents who promote and propagate industrial agricultural technologies is continuously increasing returns in the shortest possible time. The details of the symbiosis, the long-term requirements of the larger biological systems, are not relevant, not part of the equation.
Hi-tech systems of agriculture are based on 19th and 20th century technologies and economies which are built on the myth of human dominance, the fallacy that humans are separate from nature and in control of it, have “dominion” over it. Current technologies, with their reliance on the laboratory, in vitro methodologies and an antibiotic practical philosophy, are not equipped with the tools (neither technical nor social) for encompassing the kind of dynamic complexity we see in real-world biological processes. Yet there is no implication that a future science with a more holistic approach to nature that includes a complete account of the complex interactions of planetary life is not emerging to provide a better understanding of the world and our place in it — as well as improved systems of agriculture. In fact such systems are emerging today with increasing interest in techniques of organic agriculture and a growing unease about toxins in the food chain.
In industrial agricultural practices we see human engineering of the modern variety proving inadequate to the task of managing complex biological systems. Responsibility for transmission of the cultural practices is situated far from the arena where such practices are applied. This is a marked change in the process by which practices are selected and disseminated.
Song and Story
Similar patterns can be seen in the way we manage other, more intimate cultural realms and resources.
Narrative and song and artistic practice in general have been primary media of cultural interaction for millennia. No human society exists without them. Merlin Donald says, “Stories are still the only universally accessible form of human thought. They can still move people to undertake the most incredible projects and journeys, and drive people to attempt almost anything.” I think this point can be sharpened. Stories and songs are so fundamental to our development and basic nature that it seems we have a need for them. As people and especially children have always done, we infer invariance, generalize, extract meaning and ascribe significance to the moral framework that stories reveal, weaving them into our worldview.
For early humans narrative and song provided a significant part of the environment in which cognitive evolution proceeded. In preliterate societies such practices constitute the principal means of social coordination and knowledge preservation. Practices persist and are propagated by the users who benefit. Good songs and stories survive when people sing them and tell them to their children. Stories and songs are part of children’s developmental environment in every society, part of the complex emergent biological system by which we manage structural coordination.
For most of the people living in the industrialized countries narrative and song have been trivialized, downgraded to the status of “mere” entertainment; their primary source, electronic media centrally programmed for the sole purpose of providing ever-increasing gain to the industries responsible. The first job of a popular artist, or in the current lexicon, a content provider, is to interpret the constraints of the controlling system in order to reach the marketplace, to convince the media purveyors (TV networks, film studios, record labels) of an artist’s or project’s commercial potential. Viewers, known to the television industry as “eyeballs,” once active cultural participants, have become passive recipients, no longer part of the process of refinement and preservation. Profitable stories persist as reruns, “in syndication,” songs as “golden oldies,” but the big money is always in novelty. There is little advantage to vendors of entertainment to have a market crowded with timeless classics. As in the fashion industry, one season’s creations and their surrounding aesthetic will be quickly superseded by the next.
In the commercialization of our cognitive ecology we see a change in the process that selects which songs and stories survive and disseminate.
After fifty years of dominating the American cultural environment, television, the medium that sells eyeballs to advertisers, is penetrating to the farthest reaches of human settlement. Stories and songs that have persisted in human culture for millennia are being displaced by the disposable products of today’s industrial monoculture. Just as genetic diversity has its advantages, so does cultural diversity, and as we forge ahead into the future, particular cultural losses may someday prove tragic.
While this trend may be shifting with the rise of the internet, a more cooperative medium allowing decentralized access to a public information space, the technology is still in its infancy. Widespread computer use is confined to the industrialized world. There are a variety of experiments underway to introduce computers to people who have never had access to them before. In New Delhi, street kids quickly figured out how to surf the internet on computers in public kiosks. A Swedish project is providing the nomadic Saami people with the technology to track reindeer herds and to keep widely spaced communities in touch with each other. But it remains to be seen how the human-technological interaction will play out as the internet reaches beyond the industrialized world.
Human attempts to explicitly manage complex dynamic systems produce unforeseen consequences. What long-term effects electronic technologies may have on human cognitive capacities are unknown. What social effects may result from the ongoing depletion of cultural resources likewise. And the evolutionary consequences of our evolving human environment are impossible to evaluate. Yet such questions are worth considering as we refine and invest power and authority in the institutions which manage the developmental and functional environment of our most human capacities.
If cultural evolution is a directed search through design space that discovers optimal arrangements by trial and error, patterns of varying stability will emerge and evolve. If humanity’s current experiments are less successful, our future ones may be more so. But even if we blunder from an optimal peak or plateau into a Death Valley in design space and succeed in unleashing an environmental cataclysm, it is unlikely that we could destroy all life. According to the archaeological record, life has already withstood impacts that dwarf human destructive firepower.
Evolutionary experiments will continue, even if it is left to the bacteria, once again, to carry them out.
This discussion comes from James J. Gibson via Ellie Epp (2002) Being About <http:/www.sfu.ca/~elfreda/theory/beingabout/being.html>
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The details of potato cultivation are from Michael Pollan, op cit.
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