Thursday, October 03, 2013

What is Culture?

Culture is one of those pluripotent words with a hundred meanings, but mostly I talk about culture in the anthropological sense - that is, the collection of shared behaviors and beliefs that unify a society and promote its survival. If we want to understand an animal's behavior, we need to start with very fundamental questions: how does it make its living, choose its mates, raise its young. The same questions apply to people, but whereas for other animals of the same species there is pretty much a one size fits all answer for all the animals of the species, that's not the case for humans. There are no tigers that farm, or make a living as accountants, or practicing law.

Chimpanzee societies all look pretty much alike, ditto societies of wolves. Cultural elements, or learned behaviors peculiar to one or another such society are not common nor particularly important. The opposite is true of human societies. Ways of making a living, choosing mates, and even raising young vary greatly. Wolf and Chimpanzee calls are limited and apparently more or less universal, but H. sapiens has a plethora of rich and complicated languages. Shared and learned behaviors are central to the business of being a human.

The emphasis on learned behaviors is so great in human societies that culture is an enormous and intricate structure. For me, the most important elements are those fundamental ones: how people make thier living, choose their mates, rasise their young. Hunter gatherer societies disintegrate when they stop hunting and gathering and start taking jobs doing something else, and buying food at the trading post or grocery. Agricultural societies transform when most of the population stops farming. Sophisticated civilizations are a more complex case, since they already are typified by a wide variety of ways of making a living and other types of diversity - they can tolerate and incorporate a fair amount of change.

In China, Mao and the Communists set out to destroy the old civilization and culture and replace it by one that existed only in the imaginations of Marx and Lenin. The former goal was achieved, but only in part, and the latter failed utterly. A new order eventually took shape, but it is a curious hybrid, mostly of Western style industrialism with some unique elements that are either inherited or invented.