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Evolving Systems course, week 6: cultural diversity and change

Paul Grobstein'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: why is there a diversity of cultures?  how do cultures change? how can we make sense of such changes? 

Imittleman's picture

 I think the biggest question

 I think the biggest question we came up with at the end of class was whether cultural evolution was random or rather it was influenced by consciousness and then of course, which had the biggest effect.  

Again, like Julie has said, I wonder whether it can be both.  I think in many cases there are random factors that lead up to great cultural change which could have evolved from what was once conscious choices, as well as other entirely random things.  Weather, other historical events, etc.  To say it was all one or all the other would be simply misleading.  But it would also be misleading to deny that conscious choice has any power in our lives.  Whether or not the change was impacted by random forces, or random forces that were once not-so-random, we do in fact DECIDE to change and yes, we still have the ability to decide to change.  For instance,, in the fashion world, we can choose whether to wear something.  Unless I guess, a style dies out and we can no longer find it in the store.  

Again, like Julie said, there could be a mixture of the two.  Unconscious action could lead to conscious change and vice versa.  If we had no say in the matter, how would things be different?  It also just feels odd to characterize cultural change as random because it implies that we have lack choice.  I understand that it's more like saying that this choice was based upon so many random things in our lives rather than we lack any ability to choose, but it still feels odd.  I guess I feel inclined to constantly deny an argument implying that consciousness doesn't have some kind of impact.  

I also feel like when we get to humans, we start to get really complicated in which there are really facts.  There can really only be opinions which are based on other opinions and in the end, the whole thing is rather flimsy.  What benefit will defining cultural revolution do for us?  

paige's picture

Just a slice

I am tempted to just slice off the top layer of the "answer" and present it on a slightly clean platter. But actually, I think we have done a lot of thinking about “ultimate causes” in Diamond’s terms. I think I’ll just bring it back to a human scale again for a break.

Okay, so cultural changes come about because people change. Rather, people’s mindsets change. Or people decide to change their minds and people make new things. The key point I want to make is that cultural change doesn’t happen unless people accept change and make it their own. You can have isolated phenomena that never really catch on to become “culture.” I really think there is real active agency involved in culture in conjunction with plain ol’ exposure and diffusion.  If the internet didn’t become widely used by people who decided it had value, it wouldn’t be part of our “culture.” The same goes for religions, baseball, pop music, writing, etc. By the way, I think “culture” deserves a Making Sense of Ourselves definition.  What is your definition of “culture”?



Wow, overuse of  " ". Why is everything always in such flux that I can't even write "culture" without " "? It's okay, I've gotten used to it.


Sarah Ann's picture

Douglas Adams and Treasure Boxes

I'd like to start off with a quote that would have been far more appropriate at the beginning of the course, but it's just so wonderful that I have to share it:

"There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.
There is another theory which states that this has already happened."
I believe this is a Douglas Adams quote. I saw it the other day and it just made me think of our conversations in class, so I had to share it, even though we've begun focusing on a much smaller part of the universe.

Speaking of which, here we go with culture! I just wanted to say how much I love love loved the story about the three generations of treasure boxes. It was a beautiful story, and so well told. I was constantly drawn in, waiting to see what was in each box. So kudos to the writer of the treasure box story! It also really made me think about the definition of the word "treasure" and what it can mean depending on who's saying it. Treasure in this story was different from generation to generation, but there were still similarities. Different things could be considered treasure based on your age, what you've lived through, where you've come from... I really liked the thought path that your paper set me upon! :]

Summer's picture


I can't say that I completely believe in the theory geological differences determined the differences in culture. I would rather buy the concept of the gene decides the cultural evolution. The concept of culture in my mind was always what people think, how people behave and the values of a society. It just seems superfluous to give a geological reason to the diversity of cultures.

    What we would like to believe is in our blood. Can you give a reason to the religious believes? Is it also a geological difference? Then why do people in different countries share similar believes? The moslems don't eat pork, that's because they worship pigs. It is said during a war, pigs dig a hole so that the ancestors could escape and survive. Not eating pork had became a culture for moslem ever since. It was just a random incident which created a culture.  

    Look at half blood people. They often have personalities that are the mixtures of their parents. Asians are mostly conservative, Europeans and South Americans are more ebullient and adventruous. The offsprings of Asians with Europeans or South Americans are likely to have both of those qualities. The culture which the half bloods have is not simply Chinese, Japan, French or Mexican. Gene plays the main rule in the cultural mixture. 

    The determinant of cultures is not a simple factor. Maybe it's just randomness. People thousands of years ago just thought, behaved and believed in certain ways. Maybe it's just another turtle story. I'd rather count and track down the turtles than settle for a simple reason.

Serendip Visitor's picture


So last week class had some very interesting discussions. The one that stood out to me the most though was our discussion on languages. Before reading last weeks articles I never thought much about how languages came to being. The thought that all languages are somehow related and maybe come from one common language is interesting and it would be cool if we could find out that common language.

What was even more interesting than that I thought waas everyones prospective on languages. In our class I can see how we are all to some degree fascinated by language and wish we could speak them all. It was fun to go around the room and learn what languages people could speak or what languages they wished they could speak. We discussed how languages really do broaden our outlooks.

It was funny how everyone expressed how frustrated they were when it came to learning another language, especially right now in college. Also I found it funny how much we complained about how hard it was to learn, but when Anne asked if we thought that the language requirement should be taken away we all said no. One thing about languages though that poses a mystery to me is why do people that speak the same language speak it differently ? For example when we asked the students from China said what language they spoke most said Chinese the mandarin form and also a dialect native to whatever region they grew up in. Also you can see that here in the United States. Since coming to Bryn Mawr, I have talked to people from many different regions in the U.S and sometime they use words or expressions I have never heard of. Why does this occur?

schu's picture

Culture change in China

Culture changes by different means. A strictly preservative area might have problems shifting their culture preferences in a relatively short run, as many culture changes by colliding with different other culture. But there are apparently other things going on in one culture itself.


Taking China as an example, there are different historical facts to examine how culture changes.

China has 5000-yr history, which is accumulated by dynasties. Replacements of the ownership by Han people from middle and South of China or Man People or Mongolian from North, and the external culture like Buddhism from Indonesia all have great impact on the mainstream Chinese culture.


Till 1960s, A nation wide culture revolution has taken place in China. During the 10-year revolution, traditions and customs are categorized as the trash of history which should be all abandoned thoroughly, and Communism as everyone share all assets and lead a life without any luxury idea (including wearing colorful clothes) are highly encouraged. Whoever hides curio, ancient books even figure of Buddha should turn them in and let them be destroyed.


We can see the determination of the government to destroy all traditions in China. The result of it is that we have lost so many memories, records, good qualities and traditions, but still a lot of the culture has been passed on, and now, people are looking back, hoping to find out and preserve the good qualities of Chinese culture.


That is, many features of a culture are passed on by records and actions. Newborn generations go to temples to worship Buddha, as a traditional action. And the figure of Buddha is a record to remind people of the culture. When the figure is destroyed and people are forbidden to go to the temple, this tradition might lose in a certain area. The ancient strict etiquette towards teachers and parents are lost in this way.


However, some features of a culture are buried in people’s character, and it is very hard to eliminate them in 10 years. Chinese people are careful, modest and laborious. This feature is still there.


But as Chinese economy boosts, there are also many new changes occur over time. Trades bring new idea and goods, which change the way people used to live a life. People are no longer living in quadrangle courtyard and they now have computers and TVs. In return, people are isolated by departments and anti-theft locks which weakens their kindness and the tradition to share their stuffs with neighbors.


Also, the globalization brought the western culture, and thus we got Christmas and Valentine’s Day in China. People are celebrating them in Chinese sense of New Year and love, not the origin one in Western world.


Better economic conditions allow people to think more about mental desires, including Chinese traditions. We are looking back and trying to memorize what Confucius taught us, and what other festivals the ancestors left for us. Elementary schools begin teaching <The Analects> anew and Government set new laws of vacations for Chinese traditional festivals like Qingming, Lovers’s Day and Mid-autumn Day in memory of Chinese tradition.


Valentina's picture

This week is tough. I don't

This week is tough. I don't know how I feel about cultural change... do I notice it? Sometimes. Do I like it? I guess, usually. Do I know why it happens? More often than not, no. I guess the cultural change that, I feel, has happened quite recently and has come in "full force", so to speak, would be the creation of new groups within the American population (i.e. lax bros, guidos/ guidettes). How did these come about and how have these individuals and their respective cultures become so prominent? 

Take for example "lax bros"- or lacrosse brothers. These “men” are part of a cultural phenomenon that has evolved due to the recent spread of lacrosse, a sport that was invented by the Native Americans hundreds of years ago. Lax bros have many defining characteristics, for example: flo (hair style), Sperry’s, high Nike socks (black or white), lacrosse apparel (including but not limited to lax pennies), lanyards, disrespect towards women, and an obsession with sex/ pot/ alcohol (see Natty’s and “icing”: ). Also see: . These bros are easily spotted and are also infamous, even on the Bryn Mawr campus. Any mention of the Haverford’s lacrosse team leads to a comment along the lines of “stay away from them!!”

So how did such a group of people form this distinct culture in such a short amount of time ( greatest outburst has been <2 years)?!? Well, no one knows for sure. Google-ing “how did lax bros come about” produces no viable results; but if I really had to guess I’d say it started with the type of person who would play lacrosse. The sport spread through the male community amongst athletes who love what the sport offers: aggression, speed, versatility, agility. It has been said that lacrosse was bound to become popular due to the fact that it “…has the passing finesse and strategy of soccer, the speed and contact of hockey and more scoring than both of those sports combined…” (Source David Adriesen, Seattle PI) Take its predisposition for popularity and combine that with big, aggressive men and voila! Change. As far as the details of “lax bro-ness”, it probably started with the most talented players. A certain top scorer wore high socks and soon enough, everyone on the team was wearing high socks- perhaps in hopes his skill would rub off onto them; soon enough, entire leagues were wearing high socks and now all lacrosse players (women too) wear these distinctive socks. Though we will likely never be capable of pointing to an origin for every aspect of this distinct culture, for now, we can just sit back and appreciate the madness that is “lax bros” and wait for the next trend to come along.

Angela_MCA's picture

Just Random

 So I was thinking about the cultures I have experienced and the differences between them.  I know of some cultures where it is inappropriate to look an adult in the eyes or give something to someone with your left hand.  There are also some cultures that seem to be more affectionate than others. (hugging, kissing, etc.) So why is it this way.  Is there something in their genes that makes them more affectionate.  And, I know for certain that nothing "biologically" could lead someone to believe that you shouldn't look an elder in the eyes.  So why all these vast differences if genes and biology do not play a role?

Clearly, this is all because of a random sequence of events. Cause and effect. Cultural diversity is all built off of the environment and whatever that particular culture has influencing it. Random circumstances and situations occur that influence a culture.  One particular culture will be faced with similar events because the living situations of the individuals are similar.  So, a culture is more affectionate because they learned that it was the best way to survive given the circumstances they were dealt.  All cultures have reasons for doing the things they do and being the way they are.  And all these reasons stem from something that happened that caused them to be this way, something random.

On that note, I appreciate all the differences we do have.  Without them, the world would be pointless and boring.


bluebox's picture

Is a puzzlement.

Well, I can't really think of anything i really want to add, so i'll just continue with Thursday's discussion.

On Thursday we talked about why pop culture changes, but we really focused on fashion. It is my opinion that it's not one person or one group of elites who pick what comes next, but it's not totally the masses either.  I believe that culture is predictable and whoever that select group of people is can anticipate what comes next and produce fashion and movies and culture and crap before we even realize what it is that we want. (By the way, I mention movies because the Musical is back and it went out of fashion for a looong time. Celebration!) What i mean to say is, we build off each other to produce what comes next. It's not one or the other. Hardly anything is totally black and white, anyways.  And you know, it's not like fashion is new, either (I know we mentioned this) because it was copied from the 80s with a big mix of everything else. It also is really pushing boundaries, like making things once thought to be tacky awesome (like dual-toned leggings and garments made entirely of lace) and things that used to be a fashion faux pas an "it thing" (like big shirts and leggings for pants [which i still find unfortunate fashion choice]). 

Another part of fashion/pop culture is the celebrities and what they wear. For example, i'm sure there's already lady gaga-licious stuff out there. Lately i've been noticing these horrendous furry hats with wolfy ears, and just yesterday i realized that Ke$ha wears one in the My First Kiss music video. Curse you, Ke$ha.  But this brings up another point: the internet is a huge source of real life pop culture, particularly youtube. I am an avid youtube viewer, and i believe fully in its potential social and political power. Youtubers have done so much through the fandom communities created by awesome vloggers (n. those who post video blogs) like the Vlogbrothers who i know do multiple charity events. Anyway, my point is that the internet adds a new dimension to pop culture and fashion and whatnot and also makes it unpredictable because the most random things go viral and nobody can guess what will come next because it hasn't been made yet. It also speeds up the process of what's 'cool' to weeks and months instead of years. example: remember the Numa Numa song? It's not that awesome anymore, but they took part of it and turned it into a song by T.i. and Rihanna which was pretty big. Oh well, i thought it was cool.

Kirsten's picture

The personal bubble

 When thinking about cultural differences it was hard for me to think of differences between two cultures that I knew a lot about.  While I was thinking about this I realized that we had been learning about the French culture in my French class.  One bit of information that we have learned so far that stuck out to me, I thought it was a little humorous, was that French people tend to stand closer to others when they are speaking with them, and in a sense invading the “personal bubble” that many Americans have made for themselves.  As I thought about the people that I had met in the past from France, only one I can remember only one I thought stood very close when he spoke to me and to others.  His name was Marc, and we met my freshman year of high school. We were both in the fall musical that Cambridge Rindge and Latin puts on every fall. We both got to know each other pretty well, and we hung out during rehearsal.  Perhaps him being the only person from France that I have spent and extensive amount of time with could be the reason he was the only one that I can recall standing very close when he spoke to people.


LAJW's picture

Cultual Change


I really enjoyed discussing about the similarities and differences between cultural evolution and biological evolution. Like rest of classmates agreed during the lesson, I found the continuity of our course. This aspect of course makes me feel excited to learn what the individual evolution would be. I think that cultural evolution is similar to biological evolution. But they are not the same. It takes a really long period of time for genetic changes to become phenotypical changes since most of our genes are non-coding. However, it is really fast for cultural change to occur. For example, Chinese people like to wear grey, black and dark blue clothes before Chinese government implementing reform and open-up policy. Just after merely 20 years, Chinese has totally changed their choices of color. In contrast, the genetic changes for humans occur over a few generations.


Regarding to cultural changes, there have been a large amount of cultural changes since industrial evolution. It is because that with the help of machines, people are able to free themselves from strenuous manual work and, thus, we could have extra time and money to search for different ways to improve our living standards. Moreover, human beings are intelligent creatures. Language is an important tool for human beings to transfer their knowledge and experiences from one generation to the next generation. By doing so, we are able to reserve our own culture and modify it to adapt to the new environment.


I think that women starting to take leadership positions is the most recent cultural changes experienced by us. I think that this example can well prove that cultural changes in our society are not really controlled by anyone in the top position. The change is driven by the big social environment. It is because that tertiary industries becomes more important than secondary manufacturing industries in most developed countries. Hence man's intrinsic strength is no longer important and required for service-based industries. However, women ,who are believed to have better communicative skills than men, are able to perform better than men. Hence, cultural change is just an inevitable trend.



elisagogogo's picture

culture change

Last week’s discussion was amazingly interesting! Not only because the topic was vivid, but also because of the atmosphere, in which we were highly enlightened by others and our thoughts were continuously progressed. I feel that I even enjoy seeing everyone’s focused eyes.


Last Thursday’s discussion ends up with a debate of whether there are some people consciously motivating and creating a direction for culture change. Sorry to say that I don’t agree with either of them. I know that human being is the essential part of culture. And I like the idea that we are focusing on an “upside down triangle”, in which universe in at the top, culture lays below and individual is at the bottom. Everything within this triangle has interconnection. But if we agree that everything within the triangle has certain relation, why do we always focus the cause of culture change on human? From my point of view, culture change may not only directed by human, but the universe as a whole.

 While I enjoyed the class very much, I experienced a sense of anxiety afterwards. If everything in the world has the regulation, if everything is controlled by the same rule and is advancing a  predetermined destination, is the world as colorful as we think? It is interesting to see the future of universe or culture change because it takes a relatively long time to happen compared with my life time. But frankly to say, I am afraid to apply the rule of universe to my own life and reluctant to see what I would become in the future.



MC's picture

Why is Existing so Complicated

I mean really, it's ridiculous. It's exciting, this ridiculous complicated existence, but sometimes it's just too much to try to think through. Diversity and change are good examples of things that can be really hard to think through.
My automatic response to why there's a diversity of cultures is that there's a diversity of human beings. Why is there a diversity of human beings? Because of accumulated changes in alleles, which happen partially at random, partially because of other changes in other alleles, which leads me into rant on homozygosity, bottlenecking, and cheetahs. So, we [I; I refer to myself in plural a potentially disturbing amount of the time] have decided that humans are different from each other the same way they're different from any other species only... uh, the same species. That made perfect sense. Let's roll with it! So if all humans (save for identical twins and the clones I wish the government secretly had) have different genetic material, then it doesn't seem too strange to think they think would differently. We are removing the environmental variable at the moment because that would just start a whole 'which came first, the chicken or the egg' cycle and I can't do that right now.
Even people who have similar ideas don't think the exact same thing, and no matter how much humans attempt to cultivate a hive mind that is, to my knowledge at this moment, mind-bogglingly improbable. I think at this point I was going to say something about populations? Gene pools? Something about the bone marrow registry and genomic medicine, Tibetans (they are really popular in our class, hm?), and probs something about Basques (which makes me think about Finnish, but that's all language-- can I talk about that right now? Language is culture, and culture is language, but once I start talking about language I'll never shut up). I get so caught up in looking at things that I forget what I was originally meaning to say. But I'm guessing that the above words were all meant to be examples of genetic differences that become an obvious part of cultural differences.
Okay, so diversity is because of genes, the differences in which are caused by change but also cause change. So cultures change the same way alleles in a population fluctuate: breeding. One aspect of a culture that is popular is selected for, and so is passed on to the next generation, but something may happen and it becomes less favorable, or the next generation may just decide to hell with it, or it may carry on.
As for how we can make sense of such changes? I don't know. I doubt any human really knows, or cultural change would be more fluid and acceptable than it is now (or ever was, and may ever be). Change is difficult. It's annoying. It's exciting. It's disappointing. It's confusing. It's consuming. It's enthralling. It's whatever we make it to be, or whatever everyone else makes it to be and we get stuck with. It's ridiculous and goodness knows I can't understand it, no matter how intense my love-hate relationship with it is. We apologize if that's not satisfying for you, but it's all we've got.

Aimee's picture

 Meredith, One element of


One element of your commentary really struck me. You said:

    My automatic response to why there's a diversity of cultures is that there's a diversity of human beings. Why is there a diversity of human beings? Because of accumulated changes in alleles, which happen partially at random, partially because of other changes in other alleles, which leads me into rant on homozygosity, bottlenecking, and cheetahs.

You posit that humans are diverse because of our unique bits of genetic material. Our genetic diversity adequately explains why you have blonde hair and I have brown, but I'm left wondering how we - and all people - have developed such distinct personalities. I suppose this leads to the "nature v. nurture" debate; are personalities heritable, or are we born, as John Locke claimed, "tabula rasa" (a blank slate)?

While I have difficulty accepting Locke's belief that people are born as completely blank slates, devoid of all character traits, I feel that our personalities are shaped by "nurture" more than "nature." Personalities consist of more than optimism or pessimism; a personality evolves from beliefs, opinions, and one's awareness of his or her surrounding world. As a person grows and experiences more of the world, his or her personality is influenced by what he or she sees. Often, a person first sees his or her culture, so the personality of that person acclimates to the surrounding views and attitudes. Simply put, a person "learns" his or her culture, and culture, in turn, influences the personalities of its people.

Of course, I'm not trying to suggest that every member of a culture shares a singular personality, but I think it is helpful to understand personality as a byproduct of culture. To make a sweeping generalization, I believe that most Americans have different outlooks on life, but they share a tendency toward outspokenness and a desire for individuality, because American culture promotes these values. Freedom of speech. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

So, why do cultures change? I don't think cultural evolution is a biological process, but a matter of collective exposure. In recent years, societies have become more globalized, exposing members of various cultures to new customs and beliefs. Since a culture as a whole undergoes new experiences, its personality must change to accommodate its new awareness. Am I making sense?



On an unrelated note: Critical Languages. Should Bryn Mawr focus on these languages?



Bingqing's picture

Evidence from my room

Geographic structure plays a significant role in the formation of cultural difference. On Thursday, I reminded of perfect evidence—difference between my Nepalese roommate and me. Nepal is the neighboring country of China. Before I met her in International Student Orientation, I thought we should have similar countenances and similar culture. After we met, I found that in spite of being “neighbors”, we are totally different, especially in culture. The languages, architectures and food are distinguished. The similarities between Nepal and China are not that obvious as those between Japan and China, even though Japan and Nepal are both Asian countries nearby China.

The essential cause is Himalaya Mountains. In ancient Nepal and China, the Himalayas were the barrier for Nepalese and Chinese to intermarry, result in the divergent genes and lifestyles of the two neighboring countries. As the civilization started, these highest mountains in the world were the obstruction for Chinese and Nepalese to communicate. Then the two countries with few communications gradually developed different language and architecture style. The gap between two countries enlarged because of the undeveloped transportation and the lack of emphases on learning a foreign culture in the ancient era. In contrast, the connection between Japan and China has never been disrupted during the history of human civilization.


Based on the “geographic cause” argument, in the cosmopolitan age when the transportations are developed and intercultural communications are frequent, will the initially diverse cultures become convergent? I cannot figure it out. Human beings actually never control the tendency of natural and cultural development. Thus, only time will tell. 



FluteSound4's picture

Culture and Language

 One of the topics we discussed on Thursday that interested me the most was our discussion on language, linguistics, and culture. I love languages, like a majority of people, and believe that they're very important to our world today. I was sitting at lunch with an international student from Jordan last week and we were discussing the culture of Jordan and also the requirements for the students to take English. She said that she began learning English at a very young age and that it was something she was tested on constantly. She also brought up a very interesting point. She stated that an English speaker is lucky because no matter what country he or she goes to, there will always be someone whom they could communicate with in English if needed. Why should English speakers rely on the abilities of others though? We should at least try and meet them half way instead of hoping and relying that they have enough English-speaking skills to help us. 

Here's another interesting point about languages. My Mom was born in Eastern Europe and moved to Canada when she was five. My mom is fluent in Hungarian because, like many other children who grew up with immigrant parents, she was forced to speak it at home and to relatives. My mom doesn't speak Hungarian as much as she used to when she was a teenager or in her twenties. She only speaks it when she's talking to my grandparents or other European relatives. However, she tells me numerous of times that when she speaks to my grandmother, a lot of her thinking and speaking is like that of when she was in her twenties because that was the time when she spoke Hungarian the most. I don't completely understand this, but I thought it was an interesting topic to bring up about languages if we were to discuss them further. 

Olivia's picture


[Why do we need an “I”]

In the class, some students brought up that China has the culture of conformity, and with which Chinese people can be in the state without an “I”. Especially during the Culture Revolution, there was no “I” in China. I don’t agree with that opinion. Even during the Culture Revolution, when every one ought to wear the same clothes, eat the same food, and be totally uniform and indistinguishable, there were still lots of people want to be unique and different, and interestingly those people who sought an “I” were educated and were able to think. Those who didn’t need an “I” and completely followed the uniformity were those neither received education nor read books. The ones without their own opinions are more likely to follow others or copy others. It seems that thinking is requisite for the desire of an “I”. Ones don’t need an “I” for they don’t think or they don’t have their own thoughts. But I don’t know if we need an “I” because we think.


[Randomness Again]

I feel that the evolution of culture is the result of a collection of randomness.

Take the expand of Europe as an instance. If there was no compass, if there were no wars in Europe, if Europe had abundant resources, if the Spanish King decided not to support navigations, Europeans may not be the one who expanded. Every condition determines the final result. No one is prior. Randomness is the end of science evolution, and it is the start of the culture evolution. Right now I just have a feeling that the randomness is the connection, but I don't know how to explain it clearly. I think I'll get more inspirations in class to form my final idea.


genesisbui's picture

Forum comment

History and evolution are the reasons for there to be a diversity in culture. If you remember back when we had the discussions with Paul about the black and white moths. We figured that neither moth was superior than the other. The moths were instead better equipped/lucky to be around that particular change in the environment. I believe that it accounts for humans as well. And we have seen our past how so many of misconstrued Darwin's original theories. That's when I would like to introduce the topic of social Darwinism. It is the belief that social problems like poverty are due to the inheritance of bad genes. During the WWII era, Eugenics became one of the leading studies that set out to improve human-kind by genetic means. Hitler later began to expose the idea that it is the white aryan was the superior race of the world, and that it must not mate with inferior races. We know that this idea is rejected by many, but just imagine the rational that someone tried to impose for their misdoing. And now imagine how people try to rationalize racism.

Small summary of what social Darwinism is

SoundsLikeBanana's picture

Something that really

Something that really resonated with me after thursday's class was paige's idea that we valorize winners (in her case it was how we focused on the English and how they conquered the world). The more I thought about it the more it seemed to be a common idea among the cultures I've seen in my life. For example in Indian culture, or at least my famliy, they are always psuhing to be the best at EVERYTHING and there is no exception.No grey area. You either win or you loose. But you better win.

All throughout my American schooling i've seen parents pushing their kids to always win. When I went to an international school I saw how a majority of the Korean students' parents had started teaching them English, the violin, and math as young children. Those same kids were spending every waking moment in the orchestra pit or in the classroom, with little to no down time. Humans want to, and maybe need to win.


While I know there are exceptions to that declaritive statement above, I've noticed a trend. Especially in my generation of students who are pushing themselves to exhaustion because they just end up juggling too many activies and assignments because they want to be the best.

Although in some cultures this idea of needing to be the best, or win, may not have developed past the stage of friendly competition. The example I'm thinking of is that of the aztecs (i think) who played an ancient version of soccer/basketball where they bounced a rubber ball with different parts of their bodies into stone rings in a court. The players were athletic young treibespeople who had the whole world going for them. After the game the loosers and winner would stand in front of the king and he would choose which team would be sacraficed. You'd think it would be the looers, but not always. Many times it was the winners who were sacrficed. So I guess in this culture, winners aren't always valorized.


CParra's picture

Who controls the past now controls the future


There are times when one is able to interrupt a person’s word, but there are also times when you must leave them alone to get out what they need to say. I have always had the problem of not listening to this rule because my voice and thoughts always overpowered another person. It is weird to see someone just like me speak with such conviction. It is like a mirror, but it is also really embarrassing.

So now back on track. I really do not think culture can change so fast. Look at the cultures in other parts of the world have they changed. The only thing that has affected the change is technology. That was such a big modification that most major cultures changed due to this. Even then though there are countries or parts of countries that have not modified or changed. I know I talk a lot about Mexico, but that is my only reference point. There are people in Mexico who still have the culture of the past. The people who see them see them living in the past but that is there culture.

Don’t believe me, my dad’s step-grandpa and my grandma’s house don’t have a bathroom but an outhouse which is just a cement square to do your business in. That is where I have to do my business. There are also no roads in their pueblo only dirt paths. There is also farming and shops opened by the people as source of income. We still have the bread and vegetable man on his bike selling to each house. There is also the big party that we do to celebrate our respected saint. The culture is still the same there. Even though technology came in, the culture is still there alive and string.

One person cannot change the culture. What does change it is the bug idea. People put a lot of emphasis on the internet but what changed the world was not the internet but the technology. The big ideas change society and even then there are a lot of cultures that fight back.


Julie G.'s picture


 At the end of our class on Thursday, we were discussing whether or not cultural change was intentional, or conscious. We agreed that Civil Rights Movements that caused change were conscious, but couldn't agree as a class whether or not the latest fashion trends were. I can't get this off my mind.

It occurred to me as I was thinking about the nature of conscious or unconscious change, that conscious actions ALWAYS result in unconscious change. That is to say, every conscious action made may effect some premeditated change, but it also necessarily creates unexpected change. When I walk into the classroom, I don't intend to dirty the floor, but it inevitably happens. Or, a cultural example would be the Feminist Movement of the Sixties. The movement created the premeditated change of allowing women into the workplace and out of the homes (read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique for more info). However this movement also created the unexpected "second shift," where women were not only expected to work their paying jobs, but expected to continue assuming all or most of the domestic work as well (Arlie Hochschild, The Second Shift).

This line of thought provoked me to remember the saying, "You can never step in the same river twice." I used to comprehend this adage by thinking of the fact that the river is always flowing, so it is always changing. However, in thinking about the idea of conscious and unconscious change, I began reinterpreting this to mean that you necessarily change the river. Perhaps your reason for stepping in the river was to cool off, or perhaps you accidently stumbled into it, but your body necessarily changed the flow, whether you intended it to or not.

Is this making sense?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, in thinking of cultural change, I'm beginning to see how some changes are necessarily unintended, or coincidental. I'm not sure that I'm willing to accept them as random (taking "random" to mean that which is without reason), but I am willing to see how small accidents or by-products create huge changes in cultures. Like penicillin and cornflakes.

Erin's picture

After thoughts

 As we gradually zoom in human society. The culture evolution is closer to our life. I guess this topic will bring more personal feelings than the time we were talking about the vast space in universe. However, the more personal feelings involved the less chance that we will agree on each other. The concepts about culture come from individual thoughts. What do you think can be totally different from the persons nearby. Although, the environment has inevitable effects on people, people will process differently about the same information in their minds.

I want to talk about the question Paige brought up: Why valorize the history’s winners? This is probably the first agreement between eastern and western culture. Yes, we value the winner. We always pay much attention to the rank. During any competition, people always remember the people rank in the first. Do you still remember the second place in last Olympics Game? Probably not. The human nature of beating each other overcome any cultural barriers and become the common human characteristics among the races. I think one reason could be the natural selection. In the ancient times, you had to run faster to survive the crucial environment. Later, you had to work harder to survive the agricultural society. Today, you need you be smarter to succeed or just survive this fast-changing society. Our human nature of beating each other maybe is the way we protect ourselves. We admire other’s success because we all want to be the winner. It’s easy to be common people and it takes efforts to be successful. Of course, different generations have different definition of success. We valorized the success because we all want to be the winner. The inner desire to be outstanding is expressed in the people’s admiration for other’s success.

The future of Languages is to be more and more simple and easy to learn and communicate. Let’s take Chinese as an example. In the past century, Chinese has been experiencing the dramatic transformation. The simplified Chinese is no longer as complicated as the Chinese was before. The initial goal of introducing simplified Chinese is to lower the requirement to receive education and easy to read and write. The evolution also resulted in the loss of traditional Chinese culture. Many people today have difficulties to comprehend the old literature from ancient times. The evolution of language not only makes the communication easier but also creates the barrier of the communications with and comprehension in the cultural heritages.

Paul Grobstein's picture

evolving systems course: some thursday blackboard notes

Click on images for enlargements

diversityloopscales biocultdiffs evolfashion
the whole course? evolution biological and cultural: similarities and differences? fashion: a test case of cultural evolution as descent with variation and selection?


ecollier's picture

Thoughts on Last Week's Class


Here’s the New Oxford American Dictionary’s definition of culture: the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group; the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group

On Tuesday we all agreed vocally that American culture or any other culture is never better than another culture, although some of us had maybe thought before that America was more “advanced,” or something. I have to admit that growing up as a first-generation immigrant, I’ve always thought poorly of America: for it’s politics, age, (lack of) culture, policies, etc. Feeling patriotic about being American is just something I’ve never experienced.

I also know that my parents would never disapprove of the mate I chose unless he treated me badly, or something serious like that. Are my parents “progressive?”

For Thursday, I’m glad to make connections between cultural evolution and biological evolution, although I’m still wondering about how closely we may equate Lamarck with cultural evolution. Are we trying to say that Lamarck was right but looked for it in biology, which is (obviously) wrong? I would prefer to just write him off as wrong.


schu's picture



I am learning to upload photos.

I like taking pictures, and I believe that the highest skill of photographing is to capture the exclusive second in life, esp. in human life. I am used to click several times at a same scene to make sure I get at least one outcome. I don't know if this picture is good or not, but I like the sunshine on Anne. Always in my daydream, the sunshine on someone is a combination of natural power and human soul.But I still love Vampire Diaries, (never mind....).  Capturing one  in a crowd, I am pround of myself..... 

Anne Dalke's picture


And I like the way this evokes the felt sense of those cake crumbs on my fingertips!