Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Evolving Systems Course: PGnotes9

Paul Grobstein's picture

Making sense of ourselves in an evolving universe

Paul's notes - Session 9


Course subject: evolution (physical, biological, cultural, individual)

Course method: co-evolution, co-constructive inquiry, evolving by telling/hearing each other's stories, using them to create new ones, individually and collectively = co-constructive dialogue

Course arrangements:

    Thursdays Group A Group B
    9 am Elisa Genesis
    9:30   Julie
    2:30 Ilana Christine
    3:00 Angela  
    3:30 Hillary Aijingwen
    4:00 Eva Valentina
    4:30 Mattie Kayla
    5:00 Carolina Jordan

Course transition:

  • are there a diversity of cultures?
  • can we make sense of them/their relationships in terms of history?
  • have cultures changed over time?
  • what causes cultural change?  what is the relation between biological change and cultural change?  do cultures evolve like living organisms or ... ? 

From the forum: what is "culture"?  why are there different cultures? 

     I think it's easy to believe you don't have much of a culture when you are immersed in it (we've talked about this in classes before) but in reality, everyone has a culture and every place has a culture of varying sense ...  I think even the smallest circles of people, such as you and your group of friends have their own "culture".  When groups of people get together, they form an identity.  Something that binds them together, and gives them a sense of belonging ... Ilana

    I think that's one of the strange things about American culture is that we're so separated from death ... death has always been one of the few things i find really weird and uncomfortable to talk about after a while and i don't know why ... Jordania

    me wonder what American culture really is. I mean, is it just our loudness, baseball, and tendency to not really care how people feel when we ask them? ... a big part of American culture is the "Melting pot" aspect, so that many families have a tie to their original country's culture while still being American. So is it just that America's culture isn't strong enough to outshine the cultures of other countries ? Is that why I'm not seeing it as distinctly? Are we all just apple pie? and Chevy? A car company? That can't be it ... kbonds

    I was shocked at how much cultural diversity could really exist within one small classroom. Everyone had a significantly different story to tell. I was oddly intrigued by the different cultural expectations regarding physical contact. Some people’s families expect each member to kiss on both cheeks, some expect hugs to show their affection, and others refrain from physical contact all together. It’s incredible how something so seemingly insignificant could help shape one’s view of their own world, and how strange any other custom would seem to them ... Hilary G (see also Bianca)

    Talking to my dad about the common American “Hi, how are you?” he said Chinese and Vietnamese culture have something similar.  “In China,” he said, “people ask ‘Did you eat yet?’  I think it’s because back then, food was rare.  If someone ate, that someone was doing well.”  I was skeptical at first.  He went on to tell me, “That influenced a Vietnamese sort of greeting.  Have you ever noticed me, you, or anyone going somewhere, and your mom asks, ‘Where are you going?’”  I thought it was because she was nosy.  “In Vietnam, people ask other people where they’re going. It’s nothing personal.  It can be someone’s acquaintance. The person who asked doesn’t need an answer.  It’s just something to say" ... christinequeho

    All my life I’ve been surrounded by cultural diversity ... I had one friend at a tender age that was Indian. Her mother would often make delicious Indian food, exposing me to flavors and a part of their culture I never knew until then. Growing up by best-friend was Muslim Lebanese, and I learned to greet her family with many kisses cheek by cheek. From my white neighbors I had my first taste of Campbell’s Chicken-noodle and tomato soup .... genesisbui

    Carolina talked about some of the traditional Mexican cultures which I found quite interesting ... Chinese also give their children luck charms ( called Hu'shen'fu in Chinese) ... Hushenfu is actually originated from Taoism ... I just wonder that China and Mexico are located far away from each other. Moreover, during the old times, Mexicans and Chinese seldom interact with each other ... Why do they have similar cultural practices? Does it imply that even though different groups of Human Beings evolved to adapt to their own environment, the brains of Human Beings would function in the same way irrespective of the cultural and language differences? ... LAJW 

    a certain waist-to-hip ratio is a desired trait in a female partner. Women with a ratio close to the perfect ratio (.7, I believe) are more likely to find a partner and thus will make children with better ratios as well, assuming there is a genetic factor that plays in to the WHR. However, the question arises… is this male preference for a certain WHR biologically programmed or does it tie into a cultural/ society-based idea? ... Valentina

     By discussing cultural evolution, we are flirting with some dangerous beliefs: racism, ethnocentrism, and nativism ... When we focus on cultural evolution, we must be mindful of a key point - no culture is superior. We might be tempted to call our society "superior," or more evolved ... But that is superficial. All cultures evolved ... some cultures have evolved differently from others, but each adapted to meet its needs with the resources it had available. No culture that has survived into modernity is primitive, backward, or unsophisticated. If we begin to think of cultures in terms of "modern vs. primitive," or "advanced vs. limited," then we fail to recognize the importance of every culture, and the influence culture has had on humanity's development ... Aimee

    there isn’t anything in the world that is completely flawless. Everything has its strongpoints and shortcomings. So does every culture ... it is the convergence of different culture that makes continuous process in our world ... elisagogo

    The last question on the prompt motivated me to think about how or if there are similarities in cosmological, biological and cultural changes.One thing that I think of when think of the similarities between these changes that occur in life is that they all spread out. Culturally, animals have spread out throughout the world.The universe is constantly expanding, and biologically people have traveled, married other people and spread their genes throughout the world ... Kirsten

    From inside, the culture is determined by the genes. Different people have different likely character in the first place. Then, in different geographic condition, they develop in different ways. And the history and environment they create exert impacts on themselves too.  Even luck plays a role ... an individual powerful in region, can make a random choice. The choice has been made and no one could change it as time goes by. The randomness become definite ... Schu

     I find it so interesting how the geography of a culture's land can affect almost every aspect of that culture's way of life.  The animals and the conditions of the land can lead to so many differences. With all these environmental differences it is easy to see how many culture's stories can be so different.  But, at the same time it makes me feel like we are even more similar.  Because the only reason for our differences IS because of our environment ... We all try to make sense of the environments we were placed in, evolve, and develop traditions along the way that work well in our environments ... Angela_MCA

    I believe there was once one language and culture, but due to circumstances that humans could not have controlled there was a need to separate. This caused there to be two different cultures and the reason for the change of the culture was due to their natural environment. This would happen over and over again until eventually all the languages and cultures were suited for their environment ... CPara

    I remember feeling mind-boggled the thought of agriculture arising in the fertile crescent and spreading laterally, enabling the rapid growth of civilizations in Eurasia. I also remember thinking how unfair this seemed to me. I want to hold to the belief that the harder one fights for something, the greater the reward. It makes sense, but seems so unfair that people born in areas with arable land, domesticable animals, and farmable crops benefit far more from their labors than those who come from areas with arid land, animals that cannot be tamed, and low-yielding crops. But perhaps this is further example of the "randomness" that we had talked of in class with physical evolution; fairness and justice had nothing to do with it. Yet, when humans are involved, it seems as if they should ... Julie G.

I've never thought of randomness as the absence of explanation, although I realize now that there's a word for everything. And I do indeed believe that its relevant to life ... I'm a bit disgruntled with Prof. Paul for continually pushing academic writing on me. Is it not possible to come to college as a creative thinker instead of an academic one? ... ecollier


Diamond's observations - some samples

"At the heart of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel are the stories of apparently commonplace things, such as wheat, cattle, and writing. Diamond believes the uneven distribution of these simple elements shaped the course of global history and played a vital part in the epic story of continental competition.  Diamond also focuses on the physical geography of the world in which we live. For instance, natural impediments such as mountain ranges or bodies of water created isolated civilizations.  He argued that continents which were easily traversible, such as Europe encouraged trade among different people and stimulated development."

Chinese, European, North and South American cultures are different?  Why?


"Cultivated by the earliest Neolithic farmers in the hills and valleys of Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq over 13,000 years ago, wild-growing wheat has since changed beyond recognition. In the wild, as it still grows in those places today, wheat evolved to shatter in the late summer breeze, spreading its tough-coated seeds far and wide ... By subconsciously selecting, favoring, and re-planting these seeds, humans were unwittingly transforming the plant's dominant DNA — and created an entirely new species ... Wheat was a critical element of European success, both at home and abroad. Designed to thrive in temperate climates, it was easily exported to North America, South America, the Cape of South Africa and the south-east corner of Australia. Wherever wheat was successful, colonial farmers could establish a model European society — although this prosperity was often achieved at the expense of indigenous populations ... Modern wheat, the product of ancient genetic engineering, symbolizes the success of the European model — success dictated by a fluke of botanical geography."


Corn's wild ancestor, teosinte, is native to southern Mexico, and formed the staple of the earliest agricultural communities throughout the Americas. From its origins in central America, the crop spread up the western coast to northern America, and penetrated the jungles of Panama and Colombia to reach the fertile terraces of the Inca Empire in the South ... Like other cereal crops, the process of domestication has fundamentally changed the genetic structure and behavior of the plant. Where ripe cobs of teosinte grew no larger than a human thumb, maize plants can now reach over eight feet in height, with cobs growing ten inches long ... The crop was seized upon by European colonists of the New World, and exported back to Europe and to other colonies beyond. Thanks to its preference for steady rains and its long growing season, maize has been particularly successful throughout southern and tropical Africa, where corn seed, or mealies, are pulped and boiled into porridge or mash. Corn also provides the basis for flatbreads around the world, including tortillas, hominy grits, corn flakes and, of course, popcorn.


Rice is believed to have been domesticated nearly ten thousand years ago in China. Related to wheat and other wild-growing cereal grasses, the plant grows to around four feet and thrives in submerged land in the coastal plains, tidal deltas and river basins of tropical, semitropical, and temperate parts of the world ... Some academics have argued that the need for organized, reliable irrigation in the cultivation of rice may have influenced the political destiny of Asian cultures — significantly the rapid historical development of a centralized Chinese state ... So-called wild rice, which can reach 10 feet in height, grows in shallow marshes and along the shores of streams and lakes throughout North America. Natural stands of wild rice were a staple for Midwestern Native Americans, but the species was never domesticated by them, and never provided the basis of a complex, agricultural economy.  By geographic chance, America inherited a subtly different native grass species to the Asian ancestor of modern commercial rice — and on such coincidences the destinies of millions of people throughout history have turned.


Sorghum, also known as millet, is a robust, tall cereal grass which grows wild throughout Tropical Africa and was the staple cereal for the earliest African agricultural communities.  Sometimes growing as high as 15 feet, sorghum is especially valued in hot and arid regions of the world, for its natural resistance to drought and heat. Its grains are usually mashed into a pulp, boiled and eaten, while its tough stalks can be used to make brooms and brushes.  High in carbohydrates, sorghum offers less protein than maize, rice or wheat, and those communities who rely on this staple sometimes suffer nutritionally as a result. Tolerant to both drought and flood, it has become adapted to poor soils and can produce grain where many other crops would fail.  This one crop is probably largely responsible for the success of the African agricultural revolution ...


The most emblematic livestock animal of the all-conquering Eurasian agricultural package, the modern cow is descended from an ancient wild ancestor that was native throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa at the end of the Ice Age, and domesticated by the earliest Neolithic farmers around 8000 years ago ... a source of wonder to which European civilization may owe its very existence.


The only large mammals ever domesticated within the Ancient Americas ... The llama’s high tolerance for thirst, and appetite for a broad range of plants, made it key to Native American transport and communication throughout the Andes. Although llamas can average between fifteen and twenty miles a day, llamas lack the strength of oxen, camels and horses,so they’re unable to carry adult humans or pull any kind of machinery ... geography had ensured that the continent's only load-bearing mammal remained isolated, known only to the indigenous peoples of the Andes. The inhospitable jungles of the Panamanian isthmus and the deserts of South America ensured that no llamas – and no Inca – had ever reached the Aztecs, or beyond.


Spanish horses were instrumental in the conquest of the New World. Neither the Aztec nor the Inca had ever seen humans riding animals before; the psychological impact of mounted troops was tremendous ... the great irony of the conquistadors' victory was that, until about 10,000 years ago, the horse's wild ancestor had flourished throughout the Americas. The plains of North America had in fact been the natural homeland of the Equus species, some of which migrated across a narrow land passage to the plains of central Asia.  Then, between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, the species vanished from the Americas – it is believed, through a combination of over-hunting and climatic change. The submersion of the Bering Strait meant no subsequent, reverse migration could occur from central Asia, and the horse remained absent from the Americas until its reintroduction by Europeans.

Zebra and ...

Why were no large mammals ever domesticated in tropical Africa? ... Zebras are also notoriously difficult to catch. They have evolved superb early-warning mechanisms , such as peripheral vision far superior to other horses. Often bad tempered, they grow increasingly antisocial with age and once they bite, they tend not to let go. A kick from a zebra can kill — and these creatures are responsible for more injuries to American zookeepers each year than any other animal ... African herbivores were simply too aggressive for human control. Elsewhere in the world, mammals evolved in isolation from human interference — after all, man only lived outside of Africa for a fraction of his existence on earth-- around 50,000 years. When man arrived in Eurasia and in the Americas, native herbivores were by nature less cautious and more receptive to human control.  But in Africa, man and beast have evolved alongside one another for millions of years. Large mammals have learned to avoid — or if necessary, attack — human beings, resisting capture with some of the most sophisticated physiological characteristics on earth.


steel has governed the destiny of ambitious Europeans ... Those parts of the world that were too wet to keep an open furnace ablaze for several days could never make the leap to even the simplest pyrotechnology ... Steel's complex manufacture requires large quantities of iron ore and plentiful, carbon-rich forests, plus access to fast-flowing water for power and transport. All of which were readily available in Europe ...  the physical environment of Europe allowed a significant interplay of political independence, economic competition and technological collaboration. In other words, the geography of the European continent destined it to host thousands of communities, all jostling for power and prestige ... ron and bronze technologies were also common in the Far East; but without the competitive incentive of Europe, the applications of these materials remained fairly limited ... The Industrial Revolution catapulted Europe into a position of unprecedented global domination over the course of the nineteenth century.


For thousands of years, the people of Eurasia lived in close proximity to the largest
variety of domesticated mammals in the world – eating, drinking, and breathing in the germs these animals bore. Over time, animal infections crossed species, evolving into new strains which became deadly to man. Diseases like smallpox, influenza and measles were in fact the deadly inheritance of the Eurasian farming tradition – the product of thousands of years spent farming livestock ... These epidemic Eurasian diseases flourished in dense communities and tended to explode in sudden, overwhelming spates of infection and death. Transmitted via coughing, sneezing and tactile infection, they wreaked devastation throughout Eurasian history – and in the era before antibiotics, thousands died ...With each epidemic eruption, some people survived, acquiring antibodies and immunities which they passed on to the next generation. Over time, the population of Europe gained increased immunity, and the devastating impact of traditional infections decreased.  Yet the people of the New World had no history of prior exposure to these germs. They farmed only one large mammal – the llama – and even this was geographically isolated. The llama was never kept indoors, it wasn't milked and only occasionally eaten – so the people of the New World were not troubled by cross-species viral infection ... When the Europeans arrived, carrying germs which thrived in dense, semi-urban populations, the indigenous people of the Americas were effectively doomed. They had never experienced smallpox, measles or flu before, and the viruses tore through the continent, killing an estimated 90% of Native Americans.


Continents that are spread out in an east-west direction, such as Eurasia, had a developmental advantage because of the ease with which crops, animals, ideas and technologies could spread between areas of similar latitude.  Continents that spread out in a north-south direction, such as the Americas, had an inherent climatic disadvantage. Any crops, animals, ideas and technologies had to travel through dramatically changing climatic conditions to spread from one extreme to the other ... China is essentially a fertile basin, enclosed by a ring of insurmountable geographic obstacles – ocean to the east, desert to the north, mountains to the south and an enormous, man-made wall to the west. This centrally-organized culture, which could expand rapidly for thousands of miles right up to its natural borders, could exist quite happily in isolation providing irrigation agriculture was maintained. It had no need to compete with neighboring states. In fact, the basin of China was so vast, there were few neighboring states, and for thousands of years the Chinese empire progressed along its own isolated path ... Europe, on the other hand, with it four mountain ranges, five peninsulas, dozens of rivers, islands, and proximity to the coast of north Africa, was geographically destined to become a cultural melting pot. Independent, organically grown states emerged cheek by jowl, and were separated by distinct, but not insurmountable, geographical barriers ... In 1492, rejected by the King of Portugal for lack of funds, Christopher Columbus simply travelled to Portugal's neighbor and rival, Castile, and instead pitched for exploration funds there. Fuelled by the desire to compete, patrons and princes throughout Europe were prepared to invest in outlandish ventures, and provided Columbus with the necessary capital to explore new lands ... In China, the greatest treasure ships that the world had ever seen, were disbanded one day, on the whim of an Emperor. Unlike Columbus, the Admiral of the Imperial fleet, had no rival princes on whom he could call. There was little incentive for China to seek its fortune outside of its heartland – the Empire had everything it needed, right in its own backyard.

Cultures are patterns of behavior/thought/aspiration shared among groups of people?  They both influence individual behavior and are influenced by it?  Stories? 

There are a diversity of cultures, just as there are a diversity of organisms.  As with the diversity of organisms, there is no "hierarchy" of cultures, each is a distinctive adaptation to differing historical circumstances: descent with modification (randomness) plus selection?  And cultures would be expected to change in the future as they have in the past?  Why the propensity of culture to cause humans to fight with one another?

Culture as consequence of biological evolution?  Addition to biological evolution?  Differs from biological evolution in what ways?


Continued discussion in forum

  • Paper due Wednesday 6 pm
  • Reading for Thursday to start thinking about cultural evolution