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Evolving Systems course, week 5: from biological to cultural change

Anne Dalke's picture

Welcome to the course forum area for Making Sense of Ourselves in an Evolving Universe, an Emily Balch Seminar being offered to first-year students @ Bryn Mawr College in Fall 2010.
This is a conversational place intended for thoughts-in-progress, and you are  free to write about anything you found interesting in our class last week. But if you need something to get you started....: we're moving on now, from looking @ change in the universe, in geology, and in biological systems, to thinking about the changes that take place in human cultures. What sorts of links did you expect to see, or not, between changes in the physical world and other kinds of change?  To what extent do you think that cultural change has patterns and explanations similar to those involved in cosmological, geological, and biological changes?   

Paul Grobstein's picture

Ongoing evolution related to evolving systems

A couple of recent articles related to our ongoing conversations:

  • How we are evolving, Scientific American, October 2010 - "New analysis suggest that recent human evolution has followed a different course than biologists would have expected"
  • The elusive theory of everything, Scientific American, October 2010 - "The way physics has been going, realism is becoming difficult to defend ... there is no ... theory-independent concept of reality ... Instead we adopt a view that we call model-dependent realism"
Imittleman's picture

 I love talking about

 I love talking about cultures and how they differ from each other.  One of the most interesting things about traveling to a different country was not only to witness their culture, but to how they saw my own through their own eyes.  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.  It's impossible not to.  So America has a culture, and your state has one and your town and your school and in an odd 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.  Any kind of community has it.  

When we went around and shared each other's cultures, I was thinking of talking about the Red Sox.  That is truly a part of Boston culture that you don't get to experience until you really go to the games.  While it's around on the streets from time to time, it comes out in full force at Fenway.  It felt like I got to experience a part of my "culture" I didn't know existed.  While I'm sure plenty of other states have sports team and pride, there's something distinctly Boston about going to a Red Sox game.  

Then, hearing what Mattie had to say about high school was really interesting.  I think my high school, too, had its own identity and culture.  What's interesting is when you get so engrossed in it you begin to believe that the rest of the world feels similarly to the way people in your own community did.  I didn't think I'd have much culture shock coming to Bryn Mawr, and honestly I don't think my experience has been too bad, but I've been slightly surprised to discover people who don't necessarily always agree with me, politically, culturally, etc.  People in my high school generally had a lot the same opinions and ideas, so I think I began to assume all people my age thought similarly to how I did.  Finding people who disagreed was a bit surprising as I never came across that before.  But then again, it's also a good thing, I think.  In a way, I think I've been a little sheltered by my environment.

Anyway, that's all for now.  I'm looking forward to discussing this further.  

schu's picture

reply and little thoughts about culture

Just a simple reply to christinequeho, I think for Chinese people, it is not really a reson to ask "Did you eat?" that food is rare. Back in ancient China, besides the differences between the poor and rich, the food supply is much more sufficient than today. The nearest dramatic increase of Chinese population occured after liberation, or say during the 1950s to 1970s period. What I believe--may not be correct--is that having meals are the most common things in anyone's daily life. So whatever you say "Yes, I did" or "No, I haven't" doen't really make difference. It is also a don't-need-answer question in a polite way.

Talking about "why not China", I kind of understand and agree with Lemoncoala. Different culture has different value, even of the concept of "win" and "developed". But talking about the factors or reasons, it's about objectivity. China and Europe just chose the different way to go. Even twin brothers can't be the same in the most likely environment.

From inside, the culture is determined by the genes. Different people ahve different likely character in the first place. Then, in different geographic condition, they developed in different ways. And the history and environment they create exert impacts on themselves too. I believe that the development of culture is never just simple as a linear solution expressed in Guns, Germs and Steel.

Even luck plays a role. In the exact spot on timeline, an individual unknown to the world, or 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. And here we are.

bluebox's picture

So fascinating

Sorry this is late, i've been sick since friday and i've been kinda miserable lately.

I thought it was fascinating hearing all of the different customs from all over the world.  One of the things that I puzzled over in class was how some cultures have traditions honoring the dead or their ancestors where my culture doesn't really have that.  I don't know if it's just my family or if it's a lot bigger than that, but for me it's always been "don't talk about unpleasant things" so sad things about loved ones dying just aren't talked about except maybe once in a while at a holiday where the whole family comes together and we'll just mention whoever it was in conversation, maybe followed by a funny story they used to tell.  I think that's one of the strange things about American culture is that we're so separated from death.  One of my teachers used to make the point that even our food comes prepared and packaged, we're so far removed from the death of the animal that we're about to eat.  Most people nowadays wouldn't eat any meat unless it was saran-wrapped in a styrofoam tray. My point is that death is one of those things that we don't think about until we absolutely have to and when we do, it's very difficult to.  I don't know, 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.

Anyways, I really enjoyed hearing about everybody's different cultures and all their stories.  It's really somewhat eye-opening, getting to hear about customs directly from the people who participate in them, rather than just reading about them in a book or seeing them in movies. (Movies do have a way of manipulating things.) I can't wait to keep talking about cultural evolution this week!

Sarah Ann's picture

Oh, culture...

So this will be a rather short post. I don't have much to say on the topic of Guns, Germs, and Steel. I found the idea of geography driving cultural differences and evolution interesting, and I think the point has some validity. I don't know that I'd say geography is the only thing, but hey. I'm not one who's studied this extensively. I'd say the short nature of this post is due mainly to the fact that I am filled not with reflections about our rather shortened class last week, but anticipation of our discussions to come. Where will we go with cultural evolution? What different things will we learn about each other and our histories? Cultural diversity is one thing I looked forward to about Bryn Mawr as a whole, so I'm excited to begin our conversation.


Summer's picture

Culture & Personality

The discussion last week was fantastic. We really are debating about things now instead of taking others' ideas. I have some things to say about the cultural differences and the personality differences.

    I remember one of us mentioned about why Chinese people didn't go out and colonize. The Europeans did instead. What I learned from the Chinese history and classics, the big idea of the Chinese culture is "harmony". Though this word has been twisted in recent years (a lot of Chinese girls would start laughing), it is the foundation of the personality of Chinese people. The reason for the emperors ruled the country for so long is that the people would rather stay the same than having a battle and a better king unless they couldn't stand anymore. Battles are disasters, but Chinese fight bravely against unreasonable intruders. The culture teaches us to be lenient with others, but fight back when the others are across the line. There is no "taking other's land and kill them" part in the bodies of most of us. I guess that is one of the reasons of why Chinese locked themselves up instead of conquering the world.


Erin's picture

Part two

3.       I want to talk about the writings. I have had the confusions about the essay in the last few weeks. After the writing conference and our Thursday class, I think I start to understand what I am supposed to do. First, there is really not a standard answer or the answer of right or wrong of our writings. Each essay has its value in some perspective. The essays really revealed your thoughts about the typical topic which might come from any aspect of your lives. You can decide the ways you want your reader approach your ideas. However, there are distinction between thoughts and formal essay. I know we are talking the most sophisticated questions that a person can ever ponder about. Making sense of ourselves are important in the processes we understand more about ourselves not the ultimate explanations why we are existing in this magic universe. I find it hard to write essays about the prompt because they are not typical essay topic I used to see. On the other hand, the topics of the discussions are random I some ways. Actually, I would describe them as board and spontaneous because we are trying to figure something that is really about everything out. Right now, I am always trying to find a main line to connect the thoughts. I do think an essay with a main idea, or thesis will be worthy reading. I think it’s OK to be incomplete and I can always leave an open ending to fit my doubts and leave the space for reader’s imagination. There are always more perspectives to be explored about a story. I think my essay should at least get to some kind of destinations in my long ways of wondering the meaning of lives. I think I have learned a lot in the wondering around process. I should help my reader my thought my putting the essay more organized and inform them of the mina point I want to state the most rather than let them flow freely with the random thoughts come to my mind.

4.       I was really thinking seriously about the last point we were trying to get at the end Thursday’s class. I just fell silent about this ambivalent topic. I pretty much accept his argument and explanations about the dominations of European. I think his explanations are reasonable with all the analysis about the facts he showed in his books. I always believe that things happen for reasons. For the mysterious cases, people are just unable to solve the problem or find the hidden reasons yet. The truth will turned out someday and it also depends on whether you can understand that symptoms are the truths or reasons. The most importantly, it takes time for everything happened. The Europeans took over the world because accumulations of the minor geographic advantages. Then it came to the question about the China. Why not China? However, in fact, China has been the most powerful country, like USA today, for all the time before the Industrial Revolution. The different culture value between Chinese and the Westerners can explain the various behaviors. The different decisions were made during the similar situations. The accumulations of the derivatives had lead two different pathways of development of these two. Europeans are more favorable in that environment. I really don’t know what I was talking about. I am just going to stop reasoning though because too much personal feelings are evolved and I can’t see the situations objectively.


Erin's picture

Random Thoughts

I always think the reflection is a great way to organize my thoughts and review the discussion and summarize the core points in the discussions. I want to share several thoughts about our classes last week.

1.       The discussion we had in Tuesday really attracted our attention when we got the point about soul. I don’t think anyone can convince all the others using simple definitions. For me, the soul is an inner spirit that can’t be lost like as long as you are human beings. I tend to think soul as a positive word because we make word like “soul mate” to define a precious friend. I think each soul has their identities and is inspired people’s attitude towards the difficult situations in lives. I do believe that souls are existing inside bodies in some psychological ways.  The souls can survive after death. You can think the souls as the parasites but of course in good ways. I think that’s why sometimes we have some ambivalent feelings for things that we can’t explain. The souls have their ways to guide people. I know it sounds really wired; however I just can’t explain that you have good or bad first impressions for something I have never seen or known. I think the connections between the souls before my existence somehow lead me to the place where I am now today. I am not crazy but just try to reason the things I can’t explain.

2.       I think the citations are really important. I really appreciate my peers’ efforts to look into the topics and willing to share their discoveries and encourage us to explore more about the topics they brought up. I will definitely check out the books they recommended to expand my knowledge outside the classroom. Also, the citation in the reflections will give us more different approach to the topic. I am really interested in the theories of existentialism. To be honest, I am really happy that some people finally agree with me about the lives and meaning. They are obvious more accomplished than I am. The ESEM help me open a small window to the real academic study and expend my dimensions about knowledge. I think the reading wills help me figure out the some parts that confused in this direction.  I believe they will inspire me to think more about my lives.

kbonds's picture

I'm an Amerrrcan!

 I thought a lot after class (after cake) about everyone's culture stories, and about how mine was so uninteresting. I picked the Polish side of my family, but I'm not really polish by blood, but those kolachkies at Christmas are damn good. I'm Italian a bit, and all I do that reflects that is talk with a thick Chicaaaahgo accent at times and use big hand gestures. I'm a bit Swedish, and the only remnants of that are the swedish meatballs that are my favorite food and some hand painted wooden figures we put out at christmas that belonged to my great-grandmother. I'm a tiny bit of a ton of things that we really have no cultural connection to in my family. So I suppose I'm just plain ol' Amerrrcan. 

Which makes 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? Because I am loud, I love baseball, and I expect people to respond "good" when I ask then how they are unless I know them well. I would really like to talk more about what American culture is with a foreign person, because I feel like I take it for granted so much that I have no idea what it is any more.


I understand that 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.


Aimee's picture

Social Darwinism

 By discussing cultural evolution, we are flirting with some dangerous beliefs: racism, ethnocentrism, and nativism. Remember, in the decades following the release of Darwin's Origin of Species, Herbert Spencer, a British biologist and social philosopher, created Social Darwinism. I trust that we've all heard of Social Darwinism, but to summarize, it promoted the idea that human cultures have evolved so that superior, more intelligent societies have rightfully dominated lesser peoples. Of course, this view was adopted largely by the wealthy, white population, who could justify colonialism, the subjugation of minorities, and exploitative labor laws with the Social Darwinist implication that the poor or nonwhites were unfit for equality. 

Lest you think that Social Darwinism was a brief phase, recall that it bred the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. The largest example of eugenics might be the Holocaust, where Adolf Hitler authorized the extermination of some 6 million Jews, and millions more Poles, Slavs, and Roma - minorities deemed too unfit to live. On a smaller scale, the U.S. participated in eugenics, sterilizing the mentally and physically handicapped so that they could not reproduce.

What's my point? 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, because we have a larger population and an array of technology. But that is superficial. All cultures evolved. Yes, 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. 


Postscript: To respond to the prompt, I don't know if cultural change has patterns or explanations. I do know, however, that the way we perceive culture has a pattern. We are often made uncomfortable by the unfamiliar, so we seek to eliminate it or make it conform to our norms. (Por ejemplo: How did the Spanish conquistadors handle the "savage," pagan Aztecs? 1.) Convert them 2.) Kill them )


Hillary G's picture

Romanian Rhapsody

Last week we went around the room shedding light on each person’s experiences with cultural change. And personally, 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.

I remember when I went to Romania for the first time to meet my extended family. I’ve lived in Washington D.C. my whole life, and upon arrival to Romania, I had quite the culture shock. All of my relatives were so hospitable, to an extent I have never previously or since experienced. They welcomed us warmly into their homes, made lavish dinners when food there is so scarce, and literally insisted that we eat three times as much as physically possible. They opened bottle after bottle of wine and chatted with us like we were old friends, when in reality this was the first time most of my American family had ever met them. Their eagerness to show us how wonderful Romanian culture is, despite their hard economic and political times, was truly impactful for me. It’s instances like this that make me realize quite how important it is to be exposed to—and learn about—other cultures.


Serendip Visitor's picture

Interesting Subject

Hello Hillary,

I find your post very interesting. I am actually a Romanian who pursues a college degree in the United States. I am now a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College. Since this school usually accepts a high number of international students every year, I know how important it is to be exposed to other cultures as well.
I would want to ask you though, when did you go for the first time to Romania? At present times, I wouldn't say the food there is scarce. Maybe you went during the Communist Regime, when people would definitely have restricted access to food?!

Looking forward to reading your reply.

Bianca Boranda

MC's picture

Explosions and Arrowheads

I can't really remember what we talked about in class. I know it was about Jared Diamond, and how we should analyze what he's saying, and that he was kind of pompous and then I just kept thinking "cake cake cake cake cake cake cake cake cake cake cake" for the last, oh, thirty minutes of class. So I spent half the class thinking about cake. Not quite the most productive day, but y'know. Cake.

I think cultural change has patterns and explanations very similar to the explanations humans have for cosmological, geological, and biological change, partially because (and goodness how I've beaten this horse to death) humans are the ones explaining the phenomena and I feel they're inclined to take what they know and apply it to other things. It could be the reverse of that too, if that makes any sense.

On Saturday I went to New York City to visit my brother, and as we inevitably end up doing whenever I’m in New York City, we went to the Museum of Natural History. For whatever reason we spent a large portion of time in the “Peoples of the World” exhibits (ex. Peoples of Asia, Peoples of North America, Peoples of South America, Peoples of Africa), and these exhibits are both very good and very bad. They’re very good in that they present a lot of information on the development of human beings and culture and the diversity possible within one species, and while they try to be as engaging as possible they do not water the information down as much as in some other museums.

They’re very bad in that they’re old. These exhibits appear as though they haven’t been updated since the ‘60s. They describe certain peoples and patterns of migration as living in/moving through Soviet territory. They use an out of date Romanization system of Chinese. The typeface of the exhibits scream ‘pre-1990’. And, while not belittling any of the cultures displayed, there’s a subversive feeling of attempting to be politically correct and just winding up with an undertone of the noble savage in need of saving. It’s distressing because there’s so much information at the museum’s disposal, so much they could be doing, and what is probably the most sensitive area of the museum is ignored. It’s not just these exhibits that are older: the animals of the world exhibits are old too, for example, but those are all taxidermy and really, really shouldn’t be updated unless it’s just text. The museum is in constant limbo of moving from the old to the new, and I know it’s a very difficult process, but at the same time I am a child of the Internet. I want everything to be at my fingertips in a heartbeat. I want the newest, hippest thing, and I want it now.

I suppose what I’m trying to say with that is now that we have reached a period in human existence where everything is instantaneous and changes so quickly, how do we update our history and culture to function in a new age and keep it relevant? How can the past stay up to date? Should we abandon it, or keep trying to drag it with us?

paige's picture

it's google's 12th birthday

I would like to share an excerpt from a paper I wrote in high school for an economics class.

"Guns, Germs and Steel is a powerful book that elucidates the ecological basis of history. However, Diamond’s “ultimate causes” including longitude/latitude and species diversity have become removed from success in today’s world. The United States is a service-based economy, far removed from the reliance on agricultural production that made or broke nations in history. We live in an “inside-world” of internet and global trade.  If we do not have it, we can always get it with a medium of exchange. The flexibility of the modern era means that the "ultimate causes" no longer determine success."

I used to think that the cultural world and the natural world were two completely different spheres. However, now I see that nature and manmade are just "two sides of the same coin" and are really composed of interacting elements. A question I have now is just how far can we move culture and our lifestyles from nature? Are people in the United States and similar environments distant from being influenced by nature or is my perception just colored by media overload? Is it good to separate the human from the land? Is the "flexibility of the modern era" a benefit or burden?




Kirsten's picture


 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. 


LAJW's picture

Cultural Diversity





I think that last week's discussion was really interesting. During the discussion, each of us shared our own cultures which are distinctive and unique. I think this is the best representation of diversity championed at Bryn Mawr College. I am glad to study with students who are of different cultural backgrounds. Based on our discussion, it is quite clear that there is a diversity of culture and different cultures have their similarities and uniqueness. I am quite clear with the fact that cultures are shaped by different historical events, physical location of the population and thus there are cultures are so diverse on earth. 

During the conversion, Carolina talked about some of the traditional Mexican cultures which I found quite interesting. It is because that Chinese also give their children luck charms ( called Hu'shen'fu in Chinese).These divinity amulets are believed to ward off evil, harm, illness or to bring good fortune. Hushenfu is actually originated from Taoism. Taoist priests designed the Hushenfu for their new disciples, who were required to wear this amulet all the times. However, 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. In addition to the different geographical location, Mexicans and Chinese have different cultures and beliefs. 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?  






Valentina's picture

thoughts on this week

First, I'll start by saying I was reading some of the posts before me and was very interested by the Julie's point about the idea of being able to say "Chinese people think..."- what a good point, Julie, about the fact that this is said considering the size of the population though I, like you, doubt similar statements could be said about Americans. I'm unsure if this is true because of the "melting pot" that the USA is or for another reason. Hmmm.

As far as answering the presented question concerning the link between cultural and biological evolution, I do believe that the two are closely linked. However, I think of it from a biological standpoint- allow me to explain. For example, 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? I would like to lean towards the former but I’m not entirely sure.

Next, I’d like to review my thoughts on this week’s class discussion. As much as I enjoyed the review of biological evolution that we had last week, I find we will be having equally (if not more- gasp!) stimulating conversations based on cultural evolution. I am very excited to hear more stories about my classmates’ (and professor’s) experiences with their culture and traditions of their heritage. When I think about some of the weird stuff we do in “my part of the world” (Western Europe), such as clinking the top of a beer glass for light beer and bottom of the beer glass for dark beer in Germany or eating a cake with a porcelain figurine baked into it in January in France or not being able to pay for anything (not a bottle of water!) if you’re a female and out with a male in Italy, it makes me curious to hear about the things done in other parts of the world- those that, unlike Europe, are less like America. Can’t wait for this week!

christinequeho's picture


We had a very short class on Thursday.  A one hour class seems long, but for the brief discussion we had on culture, it was the. Shortest. Class. Ever.

Going around the table, shedding a light on each person’s culture, I kept everything I heard in mind.  I tried to apply them to my everyday life.  Did I relate to some?  Yes.  Did I try to relate to others?  Yes.  Did I compare other cultures to mine?  Of course.

I noticed much of this when I was at my brother’s wedding.  I stood with my brother’s best man and “chit-chatted” with him.  We gave each other usual greetings, by which I mean “Hi, how are you?” “Good, you?” “Good.”  An awkward silence shrouded us, so we gave each other excuses to leave.  The same conversation went as followed for the rest of his groomsmen and me.

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.”

I’m very excited about this culture unit in class.  It’s really something I can relate to, reflect upon, and ask questions from curiosity.  I've got so many stories that I'm eager to share!  Maybe I’ll take in some culture I’ll hear about and modify my own.





elisagogogo's picture

Culture Diversity

It's so excited that our discussion has moved from scientific evolotion to culture diversity!

If we regard each culture as a beautiful meteor flying across the sky, culture diversity will be the splendid collision of meteors that shines in the darkness. I’ve always believed that even people are driven by perfection in reality; there isn’t anything in the world that is completely flawless. Everything has its strongpoints and shortcomings. So does every culture. The most brilliant person is not the one who forever focuses on his/her own, but the one who adopts other’s strong points while overcoming his/her weak points. Similarly, it is the convergence of different culture that makes continuous process in our world.

I can always remember the first time I felt the power of culture diversity. Students from Yale, kids from an affected area and students from my high school were given a task to put an egg in to a bottle, which neck was smaller than the egg, without smashing the egg or breaking the bottle. Amanda, a student from Yale Yale raised an idea to put a burning candle in the bottle to consume oxygen and create pressure difference. I brought to my mind a boiled egg based on my mum’s breakfast. The local kids were enlightened on the home-made preserved egg( an egg that was processed by ingredients such as black tea, salt, wood ash and stored in the pot for more than twenty days)by his living environment. It was our culture diversity that finally contributed to solve the problem.

Now, coming to America as a part of culture diversity, I'm especially looking forward to sharing my experience with others and enligntening by others' perspectives. Looking forward to talking to you on Tue.!:)


SoundsLikeBanana's picture

When I began reading

When I began reading Variables on my own I was unsure about the author's assertians that geology was the basis of every culture. Then in class as we discussed how this could be true, the idea began to gain some ground. The more I tried to simply reason out his thought process the more it made sense to me. The idea that where animals, sources of water, and diseases were could really affect the humans in the area and define their need to colonize makes sense. Along that same line, those cultures and tribes who needed to expand and use other to be self satisfied, were the ones to grow rich and well-fed. Diamond's ideas were logical but at the same time still seemed like speculation.

After the reading and dicussion, I still didn't want to chalk up culture to geography. Obviously there is more to thousands of years of storytelling, festivals, and ideals than geography.


Angela_MCA's picture

 I find it so interesting how

 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. And as individuals and cultures, our souls are the same.  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. 

nina0404's picture

Cultural Evolution

"I'd say a soul is the indestructible essence of an individual,". "The uniqueness of one person is indefinite and cannot be broken."


I just wanted to say that whoever wrote this paper did a very wonderful job. These two are my favorite lines from your essay and I feel like it did the description of a soul justice.

Moving on I am excitied to go on to cultural evolution. I feel as if there will be more avenues in which we explore, and that it will be realitivly new things that we might learn. I have always loved learning about and experiencing different cultures. I love the idea that traditions have been passed on for centuries, but that these traditions have evolved to form to the modern world. I feel that cultures must evolve or they will die out. Even minor traditions experience evolution. Take Bryn Mawrs traditions for example, when parade night was first established freshman girls just walked in two lines through the archs in white dresses. Today we run through and get hit with water balloons, candy, flowers, and confetti.Cultural is one of things that helps us stay connected to past as well as the present. I am excited to discuss the different aspects of cultural evolution and how they affect us differently or even in the same way they affected those before us.

Bingqing's picture

Tip of the iceberg

During the discussion on Thursday, I was intrigued by the connections between seemingly irrelative things—the geography, the domestic animals and the empire. Perhaps, nothing exists independently in the world. (This point of view reminds me of the “Trees” on planet Pandora in film Avatar). How could I still believe that individuals are individual? Some more sophisticated associations beyond heat exchange exist, especially some connections that are built during the development of human civilization.

Another point that interested me was the reasons for and the consequence of existence. I had never imagined that the result brought by one kind of crops or domestic mammals can influence the development of a whole empire. I was overwhelmed by the relation between cause and effect. I felt my understanding about the “cause and effect in the world” superficial. Just like that I can only see the peak of an iceberg above the sea level, while I cannot easily detect how huge the part of iceberg immersed in the ocean truly is.  

I found I formed a habit of writing and drawing randomly in my draft paper. I wanted to record the instant inspiration from the discussion among classmates, Professor Dalke and me. “Write it down when it is still fresh.” Our topics involve from origin of universe, biological evolution and human civilization. I really enjoy the path to self-identification. We are journeying.




genesisbui's picture

Cultural Diversity is my Life

All my life I’ve been surrounded by cultural diversity. I remember that in my childhood I would often roam around my neighborhood, making friends of sorts of backgrounds. I remember I had one friend at a tender age that was Indian. Her mother would often make delicious Indian food, exposing my 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. I promise you if it weren’t for these people, I doubt that I would have tasted these foods. And my friends continue to present to me so much exposure to different cultures that I could quite literally continues on and on about them. I’m so happy I’ve had these experiences, I’m so blessed.


Julie G.'s picture


I have read some of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel in the past, so the idea that physical and cultural evolution might be linked is not new to me. I remember feeling mind-boggled though, at 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. Isn't that why there are charities that send out seeds, and develop irrigation for less fertile areas?

I wonder if this difference in agriculture also bleeds into other areas of culture. For example, the creation myths that we were exposed to in the beginning. These myths from outside the Fertile Crescent area involved the production/obtaining of food as central parts for explaining creation:

  • Aijingwen's myth from the Phillipines had human's planted as seeds.
  • Christine's myth, "Ainu" involved oceans and hunting; when I searched for "Ainu" on Wikipedia, I found that they had indeed been an island-dwelling, hunting-gathering people.
  • In Karina's Mayan myth, men were created out of corn -- the staple crop that Diamond wrote of for that region.

Contrarily, stories such as Hillary's Greek myth, or Valentina's analysis on science vs. Judaic creation story (both from the Fertile Crescent area) have little or, arguably, no emphasis on food, or crops, but rather on human/god motivations, or empirical explanations.

These are just five samples from our myths, so obviously this doesn't bear as any sort of technical analysis, but it does seem like an interesting correlation.


Olivia's picture

changes in science&cultures

I don't know if there are any links between the evolutions of science and the evolutions of cultures. So far I believe they are totally different.


What affect the evolution of science is purely observations or new discoveries, but what affect the evolution of culture can be countless: politics, history events, economics, landscapes, and even climates.


Recently, my friend and I have just had a discussion on how Chinese people think, and I think one of the reasons that affects the way we think is our language it self. We don’t tend to explain things specifically because our language allows us not to. For example, what is the general idea of Chinese philosophy? In Chinese one can say “Dao.” What’s the general idea of Western Philosophy? Then one cannot answer the question with only one word in English. English, the language itself, requires descriptions and explanations. Thus, language can also affect the evolution of cultures.


The purpose of science is clear, that is to be as close to the truth as possible. So the direction of the evolution in science is very clear as well. But what’s the purpose of cultures? What’s the direction of the evolution in cultures?


Now I am really looking forward to the discussions we are going to have. I want to see what those evolutions have in common.



Julie G.'s picture


 It's really interesting that you bring up the link between culture and language. This is something I studied a little last year in conjunction with Jared Diamond's book. I read other authors such as Eric A. Havelock who comments on the nature of the Greeks introducing the first fully phonetical alphabet. This enabled multiple words to be formed based on sounds made, creating a literate and philosophical culture where new words could be readily formed and recorded. Part of Havelock's interpretation of this is that it enabled the transition of emphasis from the collective to the individual. Mandarin, as I understand it, is a fully logogrammatic alphabet, meaning that each character represents a word, rather than simply a sound. As such, the same sort of situations that you presented with "Dao" arise.

I have noticed, in my short time at Bryn Mawr thus far, that many of the Chinese students speak of the Chinese people as a conglomerate: for example, your statement "on how Chinese people think," that it is possible to speak of the largest population in the world as having one methodology of thought. I am not challenging this! I have neither the expertise, nor the tools with which to do so. Rather, I doubt highly that the same could or would be conjectured of and by American people. Whether this stems from a difference in language, values, or what, I'm unsure, but I find it very interesting.

CParra's picture

Common Ground

I have been raised in a family where there is an us and then a them.

During class on Thursday even though it was short I noticed that there really isn't a them and an us.  We all came from one place together and gradually became different so it is common for there to be some common ground amongst different cultures. There was an instant where I found something that linked everyone in the classroom. 

Changing from biological evolution to cultural evolution makes sense. In the beginning it didn't make sense but now I can see that everything is connected and the change experienced biologically has happened in a similar way to culture. 

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. 

There goes my story


FluteSound4's picture

Essence and Life

I have to say that one of the most interesting discussions this week was our discussion on the soul, human beings, and the essence of existing. We also talked about cause and effect. Does everything have a cause and effect? In my experience things cannot happen without a cause. However, just because we haven't seen an example of effect without cause doesn't mean that it's not true. Anyways, back to the soul and essence of human beings. I've always believed in souls. Not because of religion, but because the idea of it gives me hope that there's more meaning and purpose to life. I liked hearing everyone's interpretations and thoughts on what a soul is to them or what they believe a soul is. The discussion got me to think a lot, which I really enjoyed because it gave me new ideas in to what a soul could possibly be. We also talked about animals and if they have a soul too. When I was little my dad always told me that a soul is something that gives humans a conscience and helps us differentiate from right and wrong. However, someone in our class brought up an interesting point about how an animal's idea of right and wrong could be completely different from a human's idea of right and wrong. Just because humans do something one way doesn't mean that it's the way everything should be. Like we've been discussing in this class, humans are not the center of everything. Our idea of right and wrong is not the finalized idea of right and wrong. If that makes any sense. Also, if humans are the only beings on this planet with a soul, then how did we come to get a soul if we were all just animals a long time ago? Does a soul evolve in us like our intellect or biological make up? 

ecollier's picture

Sharing is caring

First off, I'll share this sort-of creation myth with everyone, not just Prof. Paul as originally intended. Its amazing: The Egg.

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, although possibly not parallel to contentedness.

I really enjoyed Thursday's class, and thought it was a good exercise. You guys all brought something interesting, creative and/or entertaining. 

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?

I guess that's all that's on my mind about the class. 

Olivia's picture

about the egg

I love the story, which also reminds me of a book called MANY MASTERS. The main idea of the book is almost the same as the idea presented in THE EGG.