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The Evolution of Culture: trapped in two cultures with one future

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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
First Web Papers
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The Evolution of Culture: trapped in two cultures with one future

Maja Hadziomerovic

Culture refers to the complete way of life for a particular group of people. It encompasses their assumptions about the world, customs, traditions, language, belief system, social culture, and norms. According to L. Robert Kohls, Director of Training and Development for the International Communication Agency, culture is, "an integrated system of learned behavior patterns that are characteristic of the members of any given society. Culture refers to the total way of life of particular groups of people. It includes everything that a group of people thinks, says, does, and makes – its system of attitudes and feelings. Culture is learned and transmitted from generation to generation" (Kohls, 1984, p.17). Everyone looks at the world and processes experiences through their own cultural lens.

In biological evolution, the evolving patterns of information are genes encoded as sequences of nucleotides. Variations arise through mutation and recombination and natural selection eliminates the maladaptive variations. In cultural evolution, memes are the unit of evolving patterns. Memes are mental representations of ideas, behaviors, or other theoretical or imagined constructs, perhaps encoded as patterns of neuron activation. Ideas can evolve in a pattern analogous to biological evolution. Ideas can mutate, through for example misunderstandings, and some ideas survive better than others. Variations are created by combining, transforming, and reorganizing representations and through errors in transmission, weather they be conscious or unconscious.

Culture clashes have existed for as long as human history has been around. They are regular features on the evening news and hot topics of debate all over the world. We can see examples of culture clashes turned terribly violent on a daily basis: Middle East, Rahwanda, X-Yugoslavia, Ireland, and the list is never-ending. There are less violent, but equally meaningful, culture clashes that happen daily in schools, work places, and within individuals. Be it in a war zone or a schoolyard, culture clashes are not easy to deal with. Now imagine if those clashes follow you home. What do you do when the cultural landscape of your family is at odds? When you realize that you are a part of both ways of life, the result is a sharing of the two societies, and an internal feeling of cultural "limbo."

For the first time in my life, I am making a sketch in print of a problem that has been on my mind for quite some time now. It is a problem that I can not avoid just because of the circumstances of my life. The only credentials I have to reflect on the subject at all come through those circumstances, through nothing more than a set of chances; my very own experiences. Due to the various unexpected turns that life has thrown my way, I have had the opportunity to live on three different continents (Africa, Europe, N. America) and in four different countries (Ethiopia, Bosnia, Czech Republic, USA). Therefore, the world that I come from is a combination of my ever-changing surroundings. Each part of my life is unique in itself and has influenced me in a different way. In having grown up in various cultures, I can reflect and state with confidence that the society in which people grow up greatly influences their mindset in adulthood. Each of the cultures that I have experienced has expanded on my peripheral vision and contributed to my outlook on life. When an individual is temporarily placed inside a dominant culture that is not one's own, although there are temporary cultural assimilation issues to work with, one can always have the comfort of knowing that the situation is only temporary and that they will be returning to a more familiar setting in the near future. The situation is very different when balancing two different cultures has become and will remain the reality of one's whole life.

Now what happens in a situation where the individual, such as myself, finds themselves relating to one culture through one aspect of themselves and to the other culture on another level? When I limit myself to my Bosnian half, I find that I am violently missing aspects of the American culture, and vice versa. Do I then belong to both cultures? Or do I belong to neither? Or do I have a culture of my own, created from the recombination of two ideas into a new idea involving elements of each parent idea? I am at a turning point in my life, where I am forced to stop and reflect on my situation, only to realize that I do not completely fit in my own culture anymore and I will always be seen as a 'foreigner' through the eyes of my American friends. The situation of belonging to nowhere is frightening. What kind of cruel path in life deprives you of your own culture and blocks you from entering the newly acquired one?

Western culture sees itself as more enlightened and this is often mistaken for better; but what is 'better' is always in the eye of the beholder. In Bosnia, for example, family values are held in the highest regard, however, despite its modernized society, it is still predominantly a patriarchal culture. Through my studies at Bryn Mawr College, I have been introduced to a very liberating, empowering, feminist approach to life. Today, what I may see as a blatant infringement on my right to independence, my parents may view as a necessity for my survival within the culture that they know. How do you maintain your heritage while rejecting its cultural base? How do you balance two parts of your own world that don't seem to understand each other? This is the dilemma of a bicultural bilingual such as myself living in a cosmopolitan society. I feel trapped at these crossroads because these two worlds, which are mixed up within me, move in opposite directions.

Our accumulated life experiences make us who we are and shape how we view the world. When we are confronted with conflicting values or views of the world we must either accept or reject what we are seeing. This process of cognitive development is exactly what we experience on a daily basis when we learn to live in another culture. If something does not match what we know, we must evaluate it, and either accommodate the information or reject it. We must choose the aspects of each culture that are important to us. When we are able to do this, culture no longer stands for adherence to a past. Instead, it comes to us from the future, fully oriented towards change and uniqueness and is completely beyond prediction.



Continuing conversation
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07/31/2005, from a Reader on the Web

I understand completely what you mean as I am in the same situation. You feel alone in this as there are very few people who have this feeling, I am sure. I maried into the Egyptian culture and find now that I do not fit into my own in the uk. Yet we live in uk. I find that I struggle with my own people and their isolation and independence. I fit far more easily into my husband's culture and find I do not want to be with my own people any more. What a situation to be in. It is awful.



Anonymous's picture


yes, i do find myself lost at time, im 37 years old, i had lived here in australia for 28 years. Learning to adapt to a world i adopted and forcefully exile from my own. Sometime i feel inedequate and second class to the country i call my home. But experiencing the time going back to vietnam my country of birth i feel im home, even though i cant recall much of the memories i carried with me from there. Everything is totally different to the world im living in now. But somehow i feel connected. Maybe im feeling my root, my people, my home land. The sadden part about all this is that im so used to the adopted culture that i feel im alienated when i went back there.
Where m i? where m i belong?