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Evolving Systems course, week 7: cultural 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: how predictable is cultural change? what role do the physical and biological environment and individual choice play in cultural change?

MC's picture

This is quite late, for which

This is quite late, for which I apologize. Getting back into the swing of things after far break is harder than I thought it would be.

Parable of the Sower was... interesting? Ish? I didn't care for it that much?

It made me think about my own strange spiritual changes when I was younger, which was rather unfortunate as I don't really want to think about them again. They were awkward: they were me desperately trying to smash things together so that something made sense and so that I didn't have to keep telling people I believed in nothing. Those feelings I have associated with"making up" a religion or trying to reshape spirituality are all negative, which is one reason why I thought of the book as a whole in a negative way. Everything humans come in to contact with we evaluate against our own past experiences, so it's inevitable that whatever message the author is trying to send will be overshadowed by personal associations.

And yeah, it was despressing as %*!#. And I was listening to angry/bitter music while reading it, so the feelings of the music sort of double-teamed with the imagery in the book to wallop me over the head with cynicism and hopelessness, which isn't usually what I want to feel when I read a book. So I guess what I'm saying is that whatever I say about the book will be horribly biased? Sure. But that's sort of a given. Crud.

Kirsten's picture

Makes me think...

 I really liked the question posed by SoundsLikeBanana:

"Are those people outside of the walls evil, or just desperate?"

I really enjoy this question because it makes me reconsider what I thought of the outside world in both the Parable of the Sower as well as in reality.  While reading the book I thought of the world outside of the gated community Lauren live in was a world of evil. Though it is obvious to me that there was much "evil" going on outside the walls, I never stopped to consider how desperate those evil-doers were. It is a little silly but this train of thought brought me to think about beginning of the song "Juicy" by Biggie when he says: "Yeah, this album is all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin' in front of that called the police on me when I was just tryin' to make some money to feed my daughters." There is a legitimate reason for his "hustling" (evil-doing); the reason is to feed his daughters. But does desperation serve as an excuse for committing these crimes? As I sit here now typing this, i think not, but would i feel the same way if I was in as situation comparable to the environment in Parable of the Sower? I do not know.  SoundsLikeBanana, are correct in saying that this is  very difficult to answer.  



paige's picture

I really enjoyed Emily Artz

I really enjoyed Emily Artz French's visit to our class. I feel a lot of what she said is similar to our ideas about science and biological evolution. She demonstrated that the creative process is an evolution in itself. She raised questions about original thought and expressed doubt whether truly original thought is even possible. I felt as if this really touched upon the multiple perspectives we talked about in regard to the self. In my opinion we are all a combination of differing perspectives but each of us is a unique combination. So, every thought we have is made out of "old" components, it can be a new thought.

Another quote that stood out for me from Emily's talk was that she is always getting "one step closer to the ultimate vision" It was here that I saw the similarity between Emily's creative process and the scientific method. They both ask questions, experiment and ask more questions in the hope of arriving at something more true the next time around. 

p.s I apologize for my late post - for some reason I had the thought that I had already posted.

Also some links you might find interesting:

Article on childrens' use of ironic language:

Annotated "Origin of Species":


Hillary G's picture

Last Week

I found the artist's explanation of her process very interesting. She created a series of visuals that told a story that can be interpreted in several different ways. Her process had been an expression of her own individual evolution, combined with an expression of biological evolution. It reminded me how everything is connected, from meiosis and mitosis to cultural shifts to individual emotional/mental changes. Because it's all just stories, isn't it? 

What I found particularly amusing about Thursday's class, though, was our own E Sem's experiment. We took ourselves out of our comfortable, cozy classroom and temporarily tried to integrate into the other section's class dynamics. We found this to be difficult--we didn't feel nearly as comfortable as we had become in our own little class. Now we were around people we didn't know, most of whom had not yet developed their judgements of us. Julie even raised her hand in the other class, which is something we rarely do in our section. Then we came back to our room and everyone seemed to relax significantly. Our usual, familiar dynamic was back and our attitudes about our environment changed. We suddenly became aware of our appreciation of our own class's particular dynamics. Observing this, I was amused because it demonstrated perfectly how a simple change in environment can bring out change in a group. Perhaps it would not be considered "cultural" change (as I wouldn't necessarily refer to our class as a culture), but it was a noticeable group change in attitude and behavior. And from a psychological and sociological perspective, that's pretty cool. 

Angela_MCA's picture

 I found the discussion in

 I found the discussion in Thursday's class very interesting.  What I found particularly interesting was how Emily's art had formed itself.  She spoke of this huge gap, about 9 months I think it was. During this gap she had done nothing with the image she had in her head, then nine months later it all spilled out and she was inspired by something to paint.  So what was it that exactly happened in this gap of nine whole months? A similar thing happened to homo sapiens. All the genes and capability that we have now were there millions of years ago, but there was a significantly large gap between when we evolved, and when our "culture" began to come about. What was going on during that time?

Also, I didn't like that the pictures were purposely arranged in that order to fit evolution.  I find the order that they were created in would be way more interesting and telling of the thought process.

On the Parable of the Sower: it "sort of" reminded me of the book Brave New World. Except in Brave New World there was this Utopian society that they had created. Humans were artificially produced to be perfect and uniform.  They were conditioned since birth to be super intelligent, perfect, and content.  Immediate gratification was encouraged. Everyone was "happy", yet it was still so eerie. It was creepy that everything was perfect and everyone was so evolved and intelligent. Everyone was the same but no one cared because they were conditioned to be happy, they were not familiar with being....sad.  It made me sad, maybe we're not supposed to reach perfection and total happiness, maybe we will stay changing and just infinitely improve....

bluebox's picture

This was a very real alternate reality...

Parable of the Sower: a story about a woman who creates a story to explain what she sees.


This is definitely one of my favorite books I've ever read for multiple reasons.  At first i thought it was depressing, but that was before i realized just how bad their situation was.  Then it turned into "oh my gosh this is horrible, how could somebody imagine themselves in the story so well to write this" and then i couldn't put it down. I literally put off meals to read this book because i couldn't read and wield a fork at the same time. Somewhere in there it turned into a reality check, with it starting off being set in 2025 which isn't that far...15 years isn't that much but a lot can change. I think it's possible that something like this could happen if things happen that way, and that's scary. Cultural change in the extreme.

One part of the story that i really enjoyed was the extremely basic view of human interaction, where one would only join or accept a member of a group if there is more to be gained than to possibly lose, a benefits-outweigh-the-risks approach to companionship. I couldn't help but feel privileged to be able to make friends like i do. Not only that, but i felt privileged to not have to worry for my life and for my family every moment of the day. I know i've got it wayyy better than good, but this book made me value it even more.

I like the fact that Lauren Olamina is a sharer because it forces the reader to experience--well not literally--but at least be aware and understand that this future, Lauren's reality is painful beyond belief. I feel like that part was meant to be a warning, but the majority of the story was that i typed that, i don't know what the main point of the story was.  There are so many perspectives it could be taken from, i almost feel like there's no right answer.

Somebody made the point that Bankole was the only one to dismiss Earthseed, but accept it anyway because he liked Lauren. I'd like to use this as an example of one of my beliefs, that not everybody needs a story to explain why. Earthseed, being an extremely general idea based off of a set of universally similar experiences, made sense to a lot of people, and that's why it wasn't really dismissed until Bankole didn't really care. He's old anyway, he's figured out that he doesn't need an explanation to just be and do the best he can to survive.

I also wanted to make the point that the book starts with the Bible--discussing parts of it, her father's church--and ends with it, with the bit of the bible called the parable of the sower, which basically says It's all random, you should be glad if you're lucky enough to get cast a good lot.  After finishing the book and looking back at the title of the book, i thought the first idea one would have is that it's all a good christian parable, maybe with an in-depth analysis of parts throughout the book that could be construed as referencing the new testament.  The way i see it is that by starting and ending with the bible, but with an Earthseed quote even before the bible talk in the beginning, and then naming the book something religious, it says that they're all just stories. Earthseed and the Bible are both just different ways to explain what people can see, different means to an end.

schu's picture

practice, language

It’s really great to have a understanding and creative artist here to talk about her creation and the progress. Being a scientist student who abandoned the way to study piano exclusively and let photography and writing only be in the category of habits, I have to say that Emily’s talking make me see more things in myself.

The idea of hibernation is great. As I asked her if she would feel disappointed about the disability or incompletion to create an idea in her mind. Then she said she would express it anyway. This answer shocked me, as there have been too many times for me to regret not getting my idea down to be expressed. Same for writing, more practice will do help to make me think more and record more.


Speaking of language, I treat it more like a mortal property for enrichment of one person. I used to feel very sorry that one language is losing everyday in this world. But we can do nothing about this loss of a group of people who used to speak it. What we can do is to learn the language we are interested in and make us the speakers, or the torch bearers who keep the fire of language culture stable and bright.

As Europeans are trying to learn as many languages as they can, I found it hard to understand that languages are losing their status in Albany. In China, people put English in a very great status in all kinds of requirements, on account of the important use of English to be an international talent. The trend in the world is that people are going to learn more about languages, which is driven by interests and needs as results of globalization. Languages are never simply tools of communications. They concealed the cultural treasure kept in history, just like the DNA we own carrying information form pre-history, as Colin Renfrew mentioned in <Prehistory>. Knowing one language is a key to the understanding of one people and their lives. And experts of languages carry the great responsibility to translate languages, as well as to set rules and lead direction for others to learn new languages. Don’t abandon language program….

Olivia's picture

cultural change

[About the gap]

I don’t understand why the gap is a problem. Yes, there is a gap between agriculture revolution and the appearance of Homo sapiens, but so what? If the gap is a huge deal, then there must be close connections between the arrival of the new species and Neolithic revolution. But what is the strong connection? Why should they have close connections? I read from a history book that rapid growth of population causes the Sedentism, and then following the agriculture revolution, which has nothing to do with the new species. And I also think that the two can be put into different phases. The appearance of Homo sapiens is in speciation phase, and agriculture revolution is in tectonic phase. According to the author, the main influences in those two phases are totally different. I couldn’t see any close connections; therefore I don’t understand why there is a paradox.


[About predictions]

As the author admitted in PREHISTORY, countless factors influence the culture revolution. And it is hard to determine which is prior.  Take computers as an example. It was originally made for the war, but now it has changed our world. An invention for the war is not considered a major factor in the culture revolution, but computers did change our live tremendously.


Also, those inventions cannot be predicted, so as the culture. Ten years ago, who could predict there would be an invention called Facebook, which changes the way we socialize? Therefore, I strongly believe cultural changes are unpredictable.



Aimee's picture

 Put one foot in front of the

 Put one foot in front of the other

And soon you’ll be walking cross the floor
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking out the door
If you want to change your direction
If your time of life is at hand
Well don’t be the rule be the exception
A good way to start is to stand

(Santa Claus Is Coming to Town)


I tried to post a link to that music video, but my attempts failed. It was a tragedy, and since I'm quite tired, I might have cried a little. But just a little. Really.

So, why did I post a Christmas song? Because Santa is AWESOME!!!...and because it is a fitting reminder of evolution. "One foot in front of the other" is a simple message, but it does express the idea that life is constantly in motion. Perhaps this motion is effortless, like an adult breezing across a room, or perhaps the movement is more deliberate, like a baby trying out her first steps.

In one example of deliberate motion, our guest artist mentioned that she had chosen the order of her series' artwork in order to reflect her idea of human evolution. I admired how neatly her artwork flowed from one theme to the next, from biological evolution to cultural, but I felt in some way, cheated. Why hadn't she presented the images in the order that she created them? To do so would be the best representation of her thought processes. By forcing evolution in her artwork, the artist lied to us. She forced us as viewers to create a construct that hadn't existed in the first place. 

Speaking of invented constructs, Lauren Olamina, from the Parable of the Sower, created her Earthseed religion. Although Earthseed evolved from Buddhism, Taoism, and Lauren's own experiences, I felt that it was a dead end. Lauren evolved during her escape north, as did her faith and her community of believers, but I always had the sense that Earthseed could not be taken seriously. My rejection of Earthseed might be a tragedy, since belief was Lauren's most valuable possession, but I could not accept a religion that was completely made up.  


And an interesting article I came across today: 


SoundsLikeBanana's picture



I really enjoyed having Emily Artz French Kenny come and speak to us about her peice and the evolution of it. I thought it was a great take on both what we have been learning about biological evolution and each organism’s individual evolution. Even the evolution of our culture, through the advancement of technology and its usage in even the most artistic or daily efforts.

Which brings me to the books we read over break.

Although Parable of the Sower was a dark novel, I found it very interesting. I have always had a morbid fascination with the “end of the world” kind of stories, especially movies like I Am Legend. But lately they’ve been getting kind of repetitive and depressing so I’ve kept my distance. This was a great re-introduction into the subgenre.

I love Bingqing's question, "Were people born to be evil or naïve?" I love it because it’s a question evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and your Average Joe has asked. Luckily we don’t have an answer. Parabole of the Sower does a great job implying this question, through the world it has portrayed and the people living within it. Are those people outside of the walls evil, or just desperate? What is the difference between the people within the walls and outside of them? They are both just trying to survive to the best of their ability. What about the painted people, are they totally evil? They can’t be totally evil, they are someone’s loved ones, they might have been good once.

While I have tried to answer the questions that I have posed, there are no easy answers. But that’s life.

Sarah Ann's picture


I really liked having the artist come and talk with us on Thursday. I found myself comparing her process of creating art, especially the period of hibernation, to my writing process. I feel like this was a relatively common sentiment for many of those involved. I know I personally like setting down a piece of writing when I get stuck and coming back to it later after doing something completely unrelated. It helps unclog my brain. I also liked the concept of discussing the evolution of a series of paintings about evolution. It almost goes back to the mirror-facing-another-mirror business that I mentioned in class in reference to one of her images. In this case, however, it's more the concept of the reflection of the subject (evolution) in its own creation.

And should I talk about Parable of the Sower? I'll just say that I actually really enjoyed the book, and I'm interested to see what kinds of discussions we have about it.

elisagogogo's picture

today or future?

“We adapt and endure, for we are earthseed, and God is changing.”

I liked this sentence when I started reading Parable of the Sower. I especially liked the word “adapt”. Being so insignificant, we, human, have to constantly adapt to the evolving environment, the changing world in order to survive and flourish. But as the reading going on, I am now wondering why are people always busy preparing for future? Since the changes happen so quickly and unpredictably that we could never really know what will happen next, why don’t we cherish the present instead of working for unpredictable future? The book reminds me of the intensive earthquake happened in my hometown, in which people whom you talked with in the morning forever left the world hours later. I admit that my thought might be a bit extreme, while if I were the author, I would definitely spend the time having a cup of tea with my family in a sunny afternoon instead of writing interesting but fearful story that does not make much sense about the future.

Bingqing's picture


Were people born to be evil or naïve? Or was it the physical, biological and cultural environment that changes people’s nature?

The “evil” here does not exactly mean the “bad”; perhaps, it should be “selfish”. I strongly believe that people were born to be evil and then modified by the factors existing in the circumstances they live in—education, morality and social influences. The scarcity of all kinds of recourses in the world determines that no everyone gets what they want. Thus, in natural environment in the ancient age and then the society in the civilized age, people first need to satisfy their own needs by competing with others. They need to verify that they deserve more by competition. Is it selfish? It should be. Without the guidance of social morality and education, just as what happens in the novel Parable of the Sower, people outside of the wall steal and rob others’ possessions, shoot citizens, and rage women. Meanwhile, people inside the wall, receiving basic education and holding normal social morality, know how to get along with each other, somewhat harmoniously. No new born babies are naïve. For example, they tend to wholly occupy their mothers’ breast milk, or cry. They were not born to be willing to share; but gradually the circumstances teach them to do so. They have been being loved and then loving.

Does a single hero create a new era in the cultural evolution? Or is it a special period that nurtures growth of a hero?

I believe that it is impossible that a single person plays a determining role in the change of culture, but the circumstance and the crowd do. We need; then we have. In current world, civilization complicates the evolvement of the culture, more of less weakening the ­­importance of biological and physical effects, because conscious human beings permanently involve in this process. The civilization is found by all the human beings not any individual.


FluteSound4's picture

Art and Parables

During our discussion with Emily the week before Fall Break I was able to relate to an interesting point. Emily had said that she needed time off to finish her art. Time to just sit there and take a break or ponder the art and it's meaning without really physically working on it. I could relate to this in my writing. I'm not the kind of person who can start and finish an essay in one sitting. Or at least if I do, it comes out as a bad essay. If I do something like that, it feels like a tornado went through my head, and then my thoughts come out unclear and confusing. Actually, I think it's really difficult for anyone to start and finish an essay and make it decent in just one sitting. Writing and art are similar because they're always unfinished. I once heard that Picasso was never let into a museum by himself because he would always sneak in his paints and paintbrushes and start working on his "finished" paintings all over again. To us the painting were finished, but to Picasso there was more that could be done.


As for the Book "Parable of the Sower," I have to say that I'm done reading future apocalyptic type of stories. Ok I  understand there wasn't an apocalypse in this book, but it's themes and setting are similar to that of the book "The Road" or the movie "Book of Eli." Every time i picked up Parable and started to read it, it would make me depressed. I had to put my feelings and thoughts aside just to finish the book. In my opinion the author is almost trying to scare us into thinking that this is what the world would be like if we don't start making change. Really? for as much bad as there is in the world, there's a lot of good as well. Maybe I'm too optimistic thinking that the good will always overcome the bad. Short and honest, I didn't like the book.

Anne Dalke's picture

Do Colleges Need French Departments?

There's a relevant "room for debate" about ongoing cultural change in the NYTimes today, provoked by the decision of The State University of New York at Albany to get rid of degree programs in French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater. Many strong echoes here of our class discussion about the degree to which--and how--colleges might alter their structure, to reflect the changing cultures in which they are embedded.

mwechsler's picture


Over break I thought a lot about whether or not the concept of "competition" implies a winner and a loser, how much it necessitates a zero sum game.  My primary concern with the issue is that competition seems to be the most prevalent cause for cultural change, and the idea that cultural change might be dictated intrinsically by a series of games like that violated much of my basic philosophical sensibility. I wonder if perhaps communities of people compete against and objective, rather than each other. Perhaps everyone has an understanding of how things should be and they work to get there, and when people come in contact with each other they expose one another to the other's goals, so that competition is an interaction and not necessarily a race to gain control of certain resources, at least in terms of culture. I don't know. Maybe I'm running in circles to avoid entertaining an idea that's completely legitimate. Anyway,  I hope everyone had a good break!

CParra's picture

The Book


I have been reading parable... it is the most depressing book I have read thus far.

I do not want my future to be like that. All that destruction and chaos where one cannot even

Walk outside for fear one can die. How a 5 year old child can be killed tragically. How a man’s best friend becomes a man eating monster. How something like global climate change affects our future generation.

I am starting to see why my elders always look at the past, in a world like that I would do the same. Does the world we live in now really hurt our ancestors. Is life always better when we are young? Is there never going to be a world where the present is what we are happy about and not looking forward to the future and remembering the past. Are humans so spoiled that they are never fully satisfied. Some children say they never want to be like their parents but that statement “in my day” but I feel like in the future when we are older in years will be caught saying that exact statement.

I read the book, but it is just something I am too afraid to realize. What are we as a society going to leave to future generation? I sure hope it is not that.



ecollier's picture

At the cost of another

One question asked on Thursday was this: What sort of motivation would come from one person doing better at the cost of another?

I believe that the question was hypothetical, so I'll answer it as such.

...Well should we not all try to become more equal? Its possibly the only logical answer to one with a strong sense of compassion for others. But, as always, not quite the response we would see. I believe that instead, people would push harder to better themselves in fear of being pushed down themselves. Or pure greed. Fear or greed. I'm boiling my assumptions down into one loathsome soup. 


Imittleman's picture

 Over fall break, I read

 Over fall break, I read Parable of the Sower

I'm kind of divided when it comes to Parable of the Sower.  (Many spoilers ahead)

I half liked it, half didn't.  I didn't like it for a few reasons.  At times it felt like Earthseed came dangerously close to being cult-like.  (Or heading in that direction)  In near apocalyptic times, it makes sense that people would experience religious extremes: either they go from a staunch believer to a non-believer or transition from a non-believer into a believer.  Or switch belief systems, kind of like Lauren did.  (Drastic times call for drastic changes?) However, I definitely saw the possibility of "Earthseed" developing into something questionable.  Lauren was so invested in her religion (understandably so, I guess she did create it) and unwilling to find fault with it.  And most other characters just kind of went with Earthseed, no questions asked, despite their prior disillusionment towards other religions (except Allie, I guess).  The only one who logically opposed it was the old man and even he gave in eventually merely because he was attracted to her.  

It's not really the ideas behind Earthseed that bother me as much as the religious aspect.  Why create a "religion" behind change?  Why not use that as basis for general political structures/community and not give it a context of worship?  Octavia Butler commented at the end that she believed Lauren could gain a godlike status towards the end of her life (like Jesus?) because of those who misinterpreted her religion.  Isn't that allowing her religion to take the same course as the others she so vehemently opposed?  Doesn't calling it "religion" eventually demand that "mystical weirdness" Bankole talked about?  I think there are a lot of problems with how she's putting forth her ideas.  But I do see the importance of change and I do agree, no matter what, change happens.  But could there be away to have an awareness of that, an understanding of it, without forming a religion around it?  Maybe, also, this means that when it comes to trying to change something as fundamental as a belief system, it's not so easy.  And it's super easy for it to fall back into what it was: standard religion.  The structure of religion in particular seems to be something so essential to human life that it's difficult to alter, despite even Lauren's best efforts.  

Definitely an interesting read.

Julie G.'s picture

Why Religion?

I think the book contains at least one answer for why "Earthseed" had to be a religion. I don't have the novel in front of me, but I think...gosh, Harry is it? Sorry, I'm not great with names today. Anyway, the man in the initial trio asks Lauren the same question (or a similar one...I think he asks why "change" has to be called "God") and she responds by pointing to the goal of inhabiting planets. One interpretation of this could be the specific goal itself, but another interpretation could just be the concept of having a goal at all. A goal beyond survival. Or hope. The argument that religion, belief, faith provides motivation, hope and strength during otherwise unbearable circumstances is not a new one. It's a way to make sense of things.

In this light, Lauren makes sense of her situation through the concept of "Earthseed," and because it is "making sense" to her (what she "observes" and "deduces") it is "truth." Because "Earthseed" is Truth to Lauren, she shares it. For most, "Earthseed" also helps to recast the notion of God (from traditional religions' notions) and make sense of their senseless circumstances. With this type of read, Bankole can almost be seen as a foil to Lauren's insistence on religion: he appreciates the concept of change as both unpredictable and controllable (hmmm....sounds like our discussions on evolution) without agreeing with the religious component (at least that is my understanding of it). In this way, Bankole provides a perspective on how the concepts of "Earthseed" might be understood without their religious context. However, at the end of the novel, it is Bankole who is without hope and Lauren who is full of it. This has many implications, but one of them could be that, in order to effect hope, "Earthseed" has to be a religion.

Erin's picture

The discussion we had last

The discussion we had last week was interesting. I think it was very interesting that we invited an artist to our discussion. One point Emily brought up about her creation process was really inspiring. She said that once she got stuck in the one stage of per creation. She would put that aside and focused on other issues. The pause didn’t mean that the person just let go the idea but allow the idea to transform on its own. I found that really reasonable to explain the huge gap between first appearance of homo sapiens and earliest agricultural revolution which is the in the excerpted reading of Prehistory. Sometimes, transformations or trials don’t have obvious appearance. It takes time for anything happen or for us to realize that something did happen. I think this phenomenon applied some other situations. I think it will be helpful if we can put less pressure or focus in certain thing if we really are at a point of dilemma. I also have another question about the huge gap between revolutions. It could be depend on the standard of the revolution. The definition of progress could also affect our conclusion. Take the reading as an example. The development in agriculture in Asia is the most obvious development at that time period. On the other hand, the area around France also had a significant development in the art. The development in two different geographic locations had development in different areas. If we only use one of the aspect to value the evolution in all areas, the conclusion will not be conclusive and Therefore, we discussed whether a revolution happened or not, the perspectives that are been taken into account of can affect our conclusion.

Julie G.'s picture


It seems that the majority of cultural changes are responses to new or altered circumstances. For example, as Genesis pointed out, crises can spurn cultural change as society adjusts to an altered state. Similarly, when families from particular cultures are placed in new cultures, changes are often made to either fiercely protect and preserve the original culture, or assimilate to the new one (or both). The circumstances may be random and unpredictable, such as with natural disasters, but how society as a whole responds to them seems to be a choice, or at least, not entirely random. That is not to say that every cultural change is ascertained by a vote, but rather that the culture, as a collective of individuals seems to respond similarly, and when they don't, cultures are split, as in Civil War, or subcultures are formed, as with religious sects, for example.

I am uncertain how predictable this cultural change is.



nina0404's picture


So I have finished reading the Parable of the Sower and I found it to be a pretty good book. While the story itself was very interesting what caught my eye the most was the setting. This book is set in the near future about 14 years from now. in almost what seems an apocalyptic world. In the United States, society has gone down the drain and its an eat or be eaten world. Its almost scary to think that this could happen. One of the things I thought about the most though was how could society go from what it is now to what it is in the novel in such a short time period. Does change really occur that fast? Can a thriving society in one of the most powerful nations quickly fall into chaos? It takes centuries for the evolution of a species to occur. Does cultural evolution occur faster than nature can change?  

Julie G.'s picture

Speed of change

 Consider the internet or mobile phones. Within the space of half-a-century both have permeated through society and caused a huge cultural change in communication, manners, relationships, etc. If you further include items such as fashion, or pop music, then cultural changes can take place within the space of a decade. Hurricane Katrina was an example of how desperate or cruel people can become in desperate circumstances, even in America. I'm not suggesting that within fourteen years, America will become the despondent wasteland in The Parable of the Sower, but I do think that once cultures and civilizations start unravelling, it doesn't take long for them to completely fray.

genesisbui's picture

Cultural Change


I don’t think I can quite pinpoint how cultural change occurs or predict when it occurs, but I can tell you how I experienced it myself. I remember when 9/11 occurred. I was probably in third/fourth grade when our teacher stopped everything to watch the news. I remember the smoke, the fire trucks, the chaos, and Death, who ruled that day. For some reason I don’t feel things have been the same ever since. I feel that the consciousness itself began to increase our paranoia towards terrorists, our mistrust in our government, and the fear to lose what so much love. I believe that many would agree with me that things were never quite the same since then. Be then again, it’s always been that way. I know that history tells us that this mindset has dwelled for centuries. So are catastrophes catalysts for cultural change?


ecollier's picture

Logiable of the Somix

I thought it was interesting that both Parable of the Sower and Logicomix incorporated a lot of the issues we'd been talking about in class. Parable of the Sower presented some interesting ideas, and reminded me a lot of Lord of the Flies and the Uglies Trilogy (which is one of the only other Sci-Fi books I've read). There were a few good futuristic inventions, including the new disease: sharing, although I though Butler should have been able to come up with more of those types of things.

Logicomix was pretty cool. Mostly in terms of being a graphic novel and required reading for class. Other than that, it was a bit difficult but I still enjoyed learning a bit about early 20th century mathematicians and philosophers. I thought it was interesting put in lecture form where Bertrand Russell talked a lot about his various loves and family, much like professors often do. Which, although interesting, add little to the subject being lectures. This was also one of the few graphic novels I've ever read, but inspired me to pick up a few at the library here in Ohio during break.

Hope everyone else is having a good fall break!

Paul Grobstein's picture

Science, the culture of science, stories, and inquiry

Some thoughts about genes/evolution/science/inquiry, triggered in part by our esem conversations.  See Genes, evolution, science education, and science ...

"In three quite distinct realms of biology - genetics, human evolution, and biomedicine, a similar new story is emerging.

Many generations of genetic studies, biology laboratories, and textbooks later, what has stuck in most peoples' minds is not Mendel's most important and general insights but rather the notion that there is a fairy direct and simple relationship between genes and traits.  What people tend to remember is not what Mendel actually discovered but rather the simplification he made use of to discover it. 

The commonly emerging new story begins to correct this simplification.   The majority of recently evolved human traits seem now to have resulted from selection pressures that affect lots of genes, each making a small contribution to trait change, rather than a small number each making a large contribution.  Laboratory studies of artificial selection in Drosophila are showing the same pattern.  And its beginning to look like human disease susceptibility similarly is in general a trait influenced by many genes rather than a few ...

Science is always done by human beings in a social context ....  This makes science less "objective" than it is often portrayed as being but it also gives it a a social cohesiveness and inertia than contributes significantly to its progress while sometimes also retarding it.   Rather than trying to disguise this and other features of the inherent subjectivity of science as something vaguely shameful, we ought to acknowledge it and its significance (cf Revisiting science in culture and The subjectivity/objectivity spectrum).  And teach about it, so that both we and non-scientists are fully aware of it, and can take it into account in evaluating the significance of scientific understandings ...

My guess is that if you seriously pressed scientists on why they preferred to base research on a presumption that traits reflect small numbers of genes rather than large numbers, the response would be an Occam's razor argument in one form or another: it is "simpler" to account for traits in terms of small numbers of genes and one ought to try out "simpler" explanations before moving on to more complex explanations ...

As both scientists and science educators, we are prone to looking for, and telling, compelling stories, stories that give us simpler ways of making sense of a world that often seems inchoate beyond our understanding and control.  Such stories can be and often are useful within particular contexts, but ought never to be presumed to be universally valid ...

What though seems particularly interesting to me about the story of evolution is that the story itself contains a cautionary note about potential limits of simpler stories ... The story of evolution is not the way to account for the present which in turn makes it possible to predict the future; it is instead a way to make sense of the present which opens new possibilities for conceiving futures. Maybe that's a good way to think not only about evolution but science (and inquiry) in general as well?  Science/inquiry is not simply an observer of a process but also a contributor to it,  in ways that open new possibilities but will always have somewhat unpredictable future consequences as well?   Maybe we should should make this point clearer not only in teaching about evolution but science and inquiry in general."