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The Evolution of Culture

            Arguably, it is culture that sets humans apart from all other known organisms. Apart, however, often seems to imply above other organisms. When asked to characterize the human species, people often refer to humans as the dominant species of the planet. This tendency toward characterizing homo sapiens sapiens as “dominant” reflects a certain amount of foundationalism in that it implies a hierarchy by imposing terms of competition in the scheme of the Earth’s biosphere. Here, foundationalism is meant to imply any sort of interpretive value ascribed to a free-acting, ordered system. This is to say that any system of rank, be it in terms of competition or otherwise, when applied to evolution suggests a scale of measure which has no basis in the world we exist in. This foundationalist notion of dominance is directly related to the human capacity for culture and the cultural evolution in regards to the projects of the human mind.

            What are these projects? The impact of culture on the human existence can hardly be qualified, its effects being so far reaching. Culture can be roughly interpreted as a behavioral transmission of traits. It is a means of propagating information between generations of a species through non-genetic means. Though the transmission of culture occurs through non-genetic means, there are certain biological factors which make humans more likely than other species to have developed culture. Like many other mammals, particularly fellow primates, humans are social creatures. This is the first ingredient in fostering forms of culture, as it is based on repeated, sustained social interactions between individuals in a population, giving the initial opportunity to transmit behavior and creating an identifiable sense of community through recognition and memory of previous encounters and interactions. Next, bipedalism seems to be the biggest culture producing aspect of humans. Compared to other living primates, the ability to walk upright has allowed humans to travel great distances, giving culture physical space to expand in order to support itself. It has also allowed different populations of humans to come into contact with each other, further spreading aspects of culture that would have otherwise remained local, perpetuating the expansive qualities of culture. Finally, humans possess a capacity for language. This is due not only in part to the mental capabilities that allow for the creation of syntax (rules that govern patterns of utterances) and the preservation of long-term memory, but also the construction of vocal chords (specifically the larynx).

            Unlike other species, culture has given humans the ability to not only adapt, but shape consciously the environment we live in. As Dennett writes in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, culture is “an extra medium of design preservation and design communication… [it creates more] exploration vehicles” to understand the information our minds and bodies receive as input from the world we live in (Dennett: 338). Rather than the size of population or an organism’s ability to adapt, it is this ability to consciously shape that which shapes us which plays directly into conceptions of human dominance on the planet Earth. Were sheer numbers and adaptability grounds for this notion of dominance, bacteria would surely hold this title, yet less often are bacteria characterized as such. Similarly, animals which alter their environments to form habitats (such as ants or nest-building birds) do so mindlessly; presently, there exists no evidence that such behavior is conscious or deliberate in any way other than being the result of genetically transmitted behavior rather than non-genetic transmission.

            “People ache to believe that we human beings are vastly different from all other species- and they are right!” proclaims Dennett (ibid). Culture, he suggests, is what satisfies this “ache,” makes us “vastly different.” What, though is this ache? Essential to the operations of culture is meaning making. Exemplary is language, the systematic ascription of meaning to utterances which would otherwise hold no significance or operate as a form of communication. A key part in giving into the conception of humans as the dominant species on our planet is a certain amount of evolutionary amnesia. Not too long ago, (perhaps three-million years ago) the ancestors of modern-day humans lived contemporaneously with plethora of other hominids. Somewhere along the way, perhaps simply because we are the only ones who still exist, we humans ceased thinking of themselves as organisms and began to see ourselves as thinkers, as meaning makers. Could this ache be the need or desire to make meaning?

            This tendency to create meaning is particularly interesting when one considers it is an outcome (though not a predictable result) of an ultimately meaningless process (Dennett: 427) or one which holds no basis for interpretation. In his writing, he uses an analogy of “skyhooks” and “cranes” to represent, respectively, otherworldly causes and effects as opposed to ones based in the world we exist in. That is, foundationalist and non-foundationalist notions of existence. As meaning makers, however, are we not prone toward interpreting the input our minds and bodies receive? The human mind, then, can be characterized as “crane” which creates “skyhooks;” a product of a meaningless, uninterruptable process which now creates meanings (such as “dominance”) in spite of the lack of basis for such conceptions.


Paul Grobstein's picture

the ache to ... make meaning, for better and for worse?

"we humans ceased thinking of themselves as organisms and began to see ourselves as thinkers, as meaning makers. Could this ache be the need or desire to make meaning?"

And, perhaps, the origin of the bibical story of the fall?  And the characteristic that we are still struggling to make sense of, deal with?  What possibile ways of doing so can one imagine?